Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 2hrs. 45mins.
4/5*
Pre-order on Amazon Instant

It's very brave to make a film like this. Casting cannot have been an easy decision. There is no way of knowing what sort of actor Ellar Coltrane (the boy) will turn out to be. Neither is there any way of knowing if the film will even work out in the end. It's said that you make a film 3 times before it's released in its final state (you write it, you shoot it, and then you edit it). How many times was this film made? What if the film they were making in the beginning wasn't the film Linklater wanted to be making years later? This film had to have been a daunting task.

12 years in the making, Boyhood is Richard Linklater's ode to childhood, chronicling the adolescent years of Mason (Ellar Coltrane). It's in the vein of Francois Truffaut's series of films following his own alter ego Antoine Doinel across 4 films that caught up with Antoine at different stages in his life.

Boyhood is like those films put together into one film. And while we saw Antoine growing up and dealing with relationships, in Boyhood we see Mason's years 5 through 18, as he goes from young child to young man.

As a result, we also have something of a time capsule. Linklater refrains from telling us how old he is or what year it is, because we understand when he has grown from the last time we saw him. Things like the music and the issues of the day they talk about give us all we need.

Shot over the last 12 years they talk about the things like what they think of then President Bush, or they put out signs in support for Obama while he's running for President. We also see Mason and his sister (while still little kids) go pick up their fresh copy of the newly released Harry Potter book. They go to a Houston Astros game and watch Roger Clemens pitch, and talk about how they hate their division rival the Milwaukee Brewers. Of course today the Astros have changed divisions, so they are no longer rivals with the Brewers, and of course Clemens by now has long been retired. These little moments put time stamps on things for us.

There are many of these, "oh yeah!" moments that take us back in time, and many of these moments (especially for anyone who was growing up around this time frame) that take us back to our own childhood.

There's also a funny scene in which they discuss Star Wars, saying that they would probably never make one that takes place after Return of the Jedi. It's only funny today because we know things they didn't back then. Many of these scenes were completely improvised, and yet fit so perfectly for audiences today. There is another level of humor to this conversation for us because it wasn't shot this year about characters from years ago. While that might have been a funny scene, it's far funnier because we know the scene was shot so long ago that they really didn't know what was to come. Call it luck or foresight, but that scene now pays off for humor.

It all begs the question, "how was it made?" Did they have it all planned from the beginning or did their real lives, particularly Mason's life have a significant hand in shaping the film? It also makes you wonder what got left on the editing room floor.

We aren't only seeing Mason grow up, we also see his sister and his parents (along with a handful of returning characters) growing older. Seeing him go through everything, even the awkward teenage years, we remember that we all go through phases, and each phase have a hand in shaping who we become but they don't necessarily define who we are now, because everyone changes.

As Mason discusses toward the end of the film, it isn't even about key milestones, it's about moments. Every moment we are in is now. We don't know those we grew up with just because we saw them at certain key milestones in their life, we know them because we grew up with them seeing them in all the little moments. That's how Linklater shows us Mason.

The use of music is also very effective in the film. It doesn't just underlie key moments though, it helps us transition through Mason's different stages in life. There is a scene where his father (Ethan Hawke) gives Mason, as a present, a Beatles album he arranged himself. He calls it The Beatles Black Album. It a mix CD (that apparently Ethan Hawke really made for one of his real kids) of all the best bits of the different Beatles' solo work (indiewire posted an article with all the songs here). He explains that he painstakingly put it together so it would transition from one song to the next, flowing so well that he thinks it's the best Beatles album. There are a couple of things going on here.

Firstly he says, "I wanted to give you something for your birthday that money couldn't buy, something that only a father could give a son, like a family heirloom. This is the best I could do. Apologies in advance. I present to you: The Beatles’ Black Album."

His dad is passing down his musical taste to his son. Whether we realize it or not this happens to a certain extent to all of us. Parents pass things like their tastes in different things, mannerisms, and other personality quirks down to us. These, whether we want them or not, are the gifts that money can't buy.

Also the album isn't just about the music, it's about how they segue and transition into each other, much the way Linklater uses music to transition from moment to moment in the film. It's also all a metaphor for life in general. It's about moments and transitions, not big "key" events or experiences.

Linklater wants us to know that those big events aren't his purpose. If there was any doubt about it, he shows us. There's a scene in which Mason is still pretty young and his mother tells him they're moving back to Houston. She tells him to help repaint the walls and he pauses as he looks at the spot on the wall where they've marked his height at various ages, showing his growth. We watch Mason paint over the markings. Linklater is telling us that life is about more than those milestones. When we move on in life we can't take them with us. It's kind of sad but, again, it's about transitions.

There is a great scene where he asks his dad if there is really magic in the world. He asks if there are really elves, and his dad says no. However, he does explain that there are amazing creatures in the world such as whales, and in describing them and how they live he makes it sound magical. It's Linklater telling us there is magic in the little things, the things we take for granted.

The film also shows how many people seem to come and go from our lives throughout our different stages. As they drive away from their old house (as they are making the move to Houston), he sees his best friend riding his bike. They never had a chance to say goodbye, but Mason's face is completing unchanged. He's only taking things in. Later, Mason's mom (Patricia Arquette) marries a man who has a couple kids of his own. Mason and his sister Samantha (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei Linklater) become good friends with their new siblings. But after realizing the man she married is an abusive alcoholic, the mother grabs Mason and his sister Samantha and takes them away. While they are staying with a friend Samantha asks her mother whether they will ever see the other kids anymore, and they never do. It all serves to give us a sense of how people float in and out of our lives. People come and go all the time, sometimes without saying goodbye, and often without ever seeing them again. Losing these close friends seems to get harder for us as we get older (Later Mason does get upset about having lost a girlfriend during his teenage years). Many of these things don't phase us when we are young. Life just happens to us when we're young. We don't get to make many choices at that time, we just have to accept things as they come.

Eventually Mason grows into his awkward teenage years. He turns into that gangly kid who’s voice is changing and you can tell he doesn't feel comfortable in his own skin or with his own voice. Everyone has to go through this stage, and if they were shooting a film just about those awkward years, they probably wouldn't have cast him, because it's clear that he is an untrained actor. It’s clear that Ellar Coltrane didn't have to act as though he wasn't comfortable in his own skin, because he was living it. At times it seemed like he didn't really even want to be there. You can cast an actor to act that way, but here he doesn't have to do much. We see him being himself. And of course later he grows out of that stage and starts feeling more comfortable with himself again. While that transformation is something we've all gone through, it’s something we've never seen so genuinely on film before.

Soon after that it’s time for High School graduation, and starting college. It's interesting that we don't see the graduation, we see the party with the family afterward. Many of us probably don’t remember the graduation itself as much as what happened after that. That moment, as in the whole film, is about what comes next.

We also hear a conversation where the dad wonders how their lives would have been different if only he and Mason’s mother would have met at a different stage in life. Clearly they weren't ready to have kids when they had them, and it irrevocably changed their entire lives. They discuss many different interesting concepts in life, such as the way certain people may or may not become significant, lasting relationships depending on where we are in life when we meet them.

There are many such meaningful revelations both hopeful and sad. Mason learns from his mother and father that no one at any age really has things figured out.

As much as it's about boyhood, it's also more generally about growing up, because we also see the rest of the family growing older. The performances by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are fantastic, but Patricia Arquette gives the best performance of the film. Ellar Coltrane, however, as an actor is effective in some scenes, but, again, goes through his awkward years where he isn't very good as an actor perhaps, but effective at evoking “that time.”

It’s a cinematic achievement that should not be missed. It’s long, but worth the time. While Linklater as a director doesn't tend to do anything particularly interesting with the shooting or editing of the film, he is an experimental director when it comes to the concepts behind his films, and he’s a good story teller. His characters feel real, and none more so than a character that we literally witness grow up before our eyes. Rarely do we get such an honest and uniquely made portrayal of growing up.

Also, as a sidenote: If you like this movie and haven’t seen his “Before” series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. All of which also star Ethan Hawke) then you absolutely should. They are similar in concept where we spend time with a couple meeting and falling in love (Sunrise), meeting again years later (Sunset), and learning to work through relationship problems together after years of marriage (Midnight).