Friday, February 24, 2017

Boyhood (2014)

USA, 165 minutes
Director/writer: Richard Linklater
Photography: Lee Daniel, Shane F. Kelly
Music: Family of the Year, Coldplay, Blink 182, Flaming Lips, Ethan Hawke, Wilco
Editor: Sandra Adair
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, Steven Chester Prince, Jenni Tooley, Elijah Smith

I guess it's fair enough to call Boyhood a stunt movie, so I'll start there. Even as a stunt movie it's a little different. In most of them—Russian Ark, say, or Boyhood's contemporaneous Birdman, or even the big-dog stunt movie of all time (because it has so many stunts), Citizen Kane—it's not always easy to see much around the dazzling corners of the stunt. By contrast, Boyhood is one of the warmest and most comfortable movies I know, whose longish running time of nearly three hours always zips by too fast. The fact that it's the stunt itself that is ultimately responsible for that is just one more amazing piece of this amazing movie.

The stunt, on the off-chance you haven't heard, is that director and writer Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood in bits and pieces over a 12-year period, from 2002 to 2013. The idea was to make an ultrarealistic movie about growing up—and it is indeed that, but in the process it grows to be much more, almost a meditation on aging itself. It asks the most profound questions of life and our purpose simply by showing images that include time, real time. It's not, of course, just Ellar Coltrane as the boy Mason who ages and changes (from 6 to 17), but everyone in this picture, including the adults who play his mother and father, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Twelve years is enough time to mark anyone with the subtle scars of aging and emotional maturity.

We'll get back to the adults. The most obviously amazing part of this movie, visually and everything, is what happens to Mason and his sister Samantha (Linklater's own daughter Lorelei, from 8 to 19). As Boyhood calls attention to and implicitly argues, it's childhood and adolescence that represent the most remarkable period of human development. Any parent can testify to that (I don't happen to be one so I'm going by this movie and what every parent I've ever talked to says). Wait, check that. Scientists (and many of those parents) would likely argue it's actually the first six years that see the most amazing developments. But those developments are almost animal-like in many ways, training the lower orders of the brain, learning to walk and talk and tie your shoes. The self-conscious construction of an identity, which may be this movie's most profound theme, does not really get under way until we are 4 or 5, the time when memories start for most of us.

Even so, it's often the physical developments that are most remarkable to witness in this movie. As a rule, the time transitions are nimble, almost seamless—leaping across three months, six months, or much longer periods. Sometimes the shifts forward are signaled by subtleties like hair length, or time-bound activities such as Obama's first presidential campaign. In some cases Mason and Samantha are practically unrecognizable, with whole new inches of height and facial features shifting. They change that fast and dramatically.

The narrative is a typical tale of single parents and mixed families as they developed in the post-divorce era of the late 20th century. Mom (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke) are already split by the time Mason is 6. Dad is a typical ne'er-do-well divorced man in his 20s and 30s, disappearing for periods and reappearing with armloads of presents and forced shows of joy, under which lie wells of guilt and nameless grief. He wants to be a musician but he works as an itinerant laborer. He often shows up with hopes of patching together the relationship with Mom, but it never happens.

The movie takes place in Texas but for a time Dad is living in Alaska, and there are radically sudden moves for Mom and the kids every few years. Next episodes were generally written by Linklater from year to year only after previous ones had been shot. As the story develops, Mom remarries twice, both times to abusive alcoholics with ever-deepening personal problems. The years she spends grinding through college ultimately pay off in a master's degree and teaching work that she enjoys. But, again, one of the strengths of this movie is its depiction of time. We see that it takes many years of hard work to reach her professional reward and we can feel and see those years in Patricia Arquette's face and body.

In the end, for as much as it focuses on Mason and Samantha, it's a movie that is mostly about aging. Dad is remarried with a newborn and looking to the future with a mix of confidence and trepidation. Mom is looking at empty nest syndrome, though she is barely in her 40s. One of the best scenes here is when she breaks down as Mason is packing the things he wants to keep from the house she has sold, downsizing for the next post-parenting phase of her life. "I just thought there would be more," she says.

I also wanted to touch on one issue that raised some controversy at the time the movie was released. There's a scene where Mom is working on landscaping her property, working on it with two Latino immigrants, one of whose advice she particularly appreciates. She turns on her Mom vibe and tells him he's smart, that he should go to college and get a degree, he can do it with night classes. Many years later she sees him again in a restaurant where he is working as a manager. He has approached her because he expressly wants to thank her for changing his life with her advice that day. It's the kind of wish fulfillment fantasy for teachers and other mentor figures that shows up in movies from time to time (Woody Allen used it in Another Woman, for example).

The scene in Boyhood was criticized as patronizing racism, and perhaps it is. But it's also powerful and affecting as it goes down. Sometimes it seems like simple acts of kindness and gratitude are the best we can hope for and that's what this movie is about too. In many ways Boyhood strikes me as a kind of Americanized version of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu's domestic dramas, which tend to be as simple as they are artful. Boyhood is also simple and artful at its heart, its stunt aspect receding into the background as the physical changes work on us which we see in all the players. These effects can only be produced by time and rarely if ever by makeup and performance. I've never seen anything quite like this in a movie before. Maybe the closest is the Up documentary series. Boyhood simply becomes a matter of life in all its infuriating contradictions flowing forward. Totally great and could have been three times as long.


  1. One of the best stunts concerns the matter of luck: what if Ellar Coltrane grew into a person who was a crappy actor? I love this movie, but Linklater got lucky.

  2. For me, the best parts of Up series has something to do w/ the awkwardly human stuff that comes through w/ non-actors. That oddly inchoate emotional tension that's difficult to watch but piercing in moments in a way I've rarely experienced in dramatic presentations. Human experience seems more mundane and more inscrutable than acting could ever reproduce. (Also, kind of funny the turn "reality" TV has taken since verite stuff like Up.) Still need to see Boyhood. (I know, I don't get out enough.)

  3. That whole controversy over the Latino restaurant manager struck me as fishing around for nothing. The emotional pull of that scene had to do with Patricia Arquette and her children, how casually they took her for granted; the manager could have been Latino or not Latino and the intention of the scene wouldn't have been the least bit different, I don't think.

  4. Finally got ar to seeing this. Trying to catch up w/ some recent award winners. The problem w/ the Latino story for me is the flippancy betw her telling him he's smart, walking away after authorizing his yard work, to him thanking her for changing his life. The connection betw those two scenes isn't credible and so, unfortunately, it does give off a whiff of vaguely condescending racism. It needed more setup or perhaps for the point Linklater wanted to make in that scene, a counterpoint to her kids disregard for her counsel, why not have one of her former students approach her? But it was a small misstep. Generally, I thought the fragmented awkwardness was a virtue and the fumbling narrative hit some sort of age of diminishing expectations zeitgeist. By now living for the moment is an old drug cliche, but still somehow a reaffirming life continuity.