Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Boyhood

Between 2002 and 2014,  Richard Linklater made several, very diverse films, everything from an exposé of the meat packing industry to a nostalgic ode to Orson Welles, and even a few pop entertainments like SCHOOL OF ROCK and a remake of THE BAD NEWS BEARS.  But each of those years the writer/director also returned to track the progress of Mason Evans, Jr. a young boy growing up in various parts of Texas.  He lived with his sister Samantha and mother Olivia, who was divorced from his often absent father Mason, Sr.  There was sibling rivalry/torment. Would-be (sometimes abusive) stepfathers who came and went.  Mason would develop into a thoughtful, sensitive teen who discovered a desire to pursue photography and thought about things a bit more pointedly than most of his peers. 

Despite the cinéma vérité stylings of last year's BOYHOOD, all of the above characters are fictional.  Part of the brilliance of this historic project is that everything feels as if Linklater had his cameras running at just the right moments in a real domicile to capture the familiar and sometimes painful experiences of growing up.  Like he was the documentarian/interloper who let life happen and didn't try to add any flourish. Not his method, anyway; Linklater is not much for visual stylistics.  Yet, most of the scenes - save a discussion between father and son about the possibility of a new STAR WARS movie - in this nearly three hour movie were in fact scripted and thought through very carefully.

Ellar Coltrane and the director's daughter Lorelei play brother and sister so naturally, so comfortably. Sometimes their acting is a bit rough, and this is how it should be for such a warts and all project. And imagine how odd this twelve year experiment was for them! Playing these characters while having their own developing, formative lives.  You begin to wonder how much of one affected the other. Life and art in a completely believable, albeit necessarily messy union.  We witness their bodies and features grow into young adulthood.  Observe their shifting personalities.  Particularly Mason Jr's, who is so urgent as a youngster and becomes more laid back as he ages.  How by the end of the film he speaks articulately like many Linklater characters before him yet creates his own variation.  I anticipate watching interviews with these actors, to hear them explain how they sorted through and between their performances and their real lives.

A common theme in Linklater's films is the dilemma of pursuing an artistic career, perhaps a calling, while reality beckons otherwise.  Mason Jr. shows a real skill for photography, eventually winning a scholarship, but is perceived even by his art teacher as indifferent and unambitious. Unable and unwilling to rally for a deadline and work on a project that disinterests him. The way adults have to.  Throughout the movie, the boy is called out for his deliberate way of doing things, like household chores, schoolwork, duties at his job, and by that teacher.  The kid is disappointed when his father (Ethan Hawke) quits playing music to work in insurance and later trades his ultra cool, beloved GTO for a minivan. Jr. is disappointed because he was promised that car when he turned sixteen, yes, but also because he feels his father has become a square, sold out, even if there were solid reasons for doing so.  Is that sort of compromise essential? Is this what life is to be?

Linklater characters love to talk, wax philosophical.  Maybe not as much here as in DAZED AND CONFUSED or certainly WAKING LIFE, but when Jr. offers his views on the enslavement of social media and technology in general, you can just hear the director (and likely be reminded of someone you know) in those words. I really appreciated the sentiment of how we often get a neurotransmitter rush when he hear the ding in our inbox, how we've been brainwashed/conditioned to think a new message on our smartphones is a real connection.  How much life is missed in the meantime. How we may miss being "seized by the moment" rather than the other way around.

BOYHOOD will resonate strongly with parents, of course.  They will laugh and likely cringe in recognition at behaviors, reactions.  They will relate when Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggles in her balancing act - her attempts to maintain a household and be an available parent in the face of several moves, her efforts to get a degree, and unreliable men.  The last time we see Olivia, all she can do is break down in sobs as her son is about to leave for college.  She finds it incredulous that life has moved so quickly, that she couldn't "freeze this moment a little bit longer." I also found myself feeling she was a bit selfish in that moment, making it all about her, but then I haven't been there myself, yet.

Most viewers of BOYHOOD will be unaware of the UP series, Michael Apted's documentaries that beginning in 1964 followed, every seven years, a group of Brits from age 7 until well into their fifties.  Real people. Quietly powerful films that revealed the triumphs and disappointments of life. Some inevitable.  I'm sure Linklater was at least aware of those films, how fascinating it was to see each person's dynamic ("growth" not always an appropriate descriptor) over time.  With BOYHOOD, Mason is viewed from ages 6 to 18, many of the most critical years of one's life. As he sits with a potential new girlfriend on his first day of college and the credits flash, we're left to imagine the rest of his life, the possibilities.  BOYHOOD is a cinematic time capsule through which many will see their own and/or their children's lives.  The film deserves such recognition and multiple visits.

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