By Matthew Sorrento.
I honestly hope the “sublime” trend ends soon, with the recent output of Terrence Malick, his bombastic, excessive Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and gaseous muck like Cloud Atlas, cramming together years of history and a speculative look to the future, to signify nothing.
Thankfully, Richard Linklater saw past the vision of these filmmakers, when he began filming Boyhood in 2002. Impossible to miss in the media, I’ll recount the production anyway, in case some are still dizzy from Malick and the Atlas Company: for 12 years, Linklater gathered a cast yearly to chronicle a boy’s growth from six to 18. The result is a simple chain of vignettes anchored by its characters’ long-term development, and doubly that of the cast revealing their own maturation and self-reflection. Centered on Mason (Ellar Coltrane, himself growing from 6 to 18), Boyhood also gave Linklater the opportunity the opportunity to film the growth of his own daughter, Lorelei (in the role of Mason’s sister, Samantha). A familial kind of dedication extends to all the leads.
Linklater uses life itself to his advantage by finding a clever way to capture its scope. He borrows from Michael Apted’s Up documentary series only as much as one narrative feature would allow. Such an approach isn’t new for Linklater: his Before trilogy evolved into a kind of time-lapsing exercise, though the second entry didn’t appear until after Boyhood had begun. He has danced around coming-of-age sensibilities for so long that we sense his own frustration at documenting youth and its limits – even his Fast Food Nation (2007) partially concerns teenage burger-slingers growing a conscience and ready to rebel against the industry. Linklater understands his medium, by recognizing that only in film could we deliver life thus to people, for viewers to unlock their own memories of youth and, for us parents out there, dote on and fear for our children.
Boyhood opens with an idealized but grounded image of youth: six-year-old Mason lying back on grass, his outstretched arm capturing the delicacy of infancy. Soon we worry for Mason as much as we are taken with him. In a single family, he moves with his mother (Patricia Arquette) to the home of her professor, in what becomes another unflattering big screen portrayal of higher educators. A compelling performance by Marco Perella, Bill is one of many plot devices placed over narrative holes in the film, used to boost each brief vignette on to the next. Though it’s hard to blame Linklater, since his artistic form requires both condensation and constant progression. His vignettes glide by like clear, unfiltered memories.
Mason’s father – played by Linklater regular, Ethan Hawke – begins as a charismatic deadbeat dad, missing for a time when introduced in the film. The title also refers to the dad, who grows from his own immaturity into a more responsible figure, with a stronger connection to his son and daughter as he begins a new family. Linklater understands what have been called “broken families” by showing that they can grow into healthy situations, in spite of the setbacks. From their performances, we’d like to think that Hawk and Arquette do, as well – if their writer-director has led them the way, or if the perspective of such an extended project helped them to learn such.
In such a relaxed style, Boyhood amazes with its fusion of actor and performance. Linklater’s approach was to periodically gather the cast for improvisation and then leave to script scenes for each new vignette. Thus we follow the boy’s, and his family’s, desire and confusion, since the performers own it in full. Linklater seems to answer Gus Van Sant’s verite and delirium of youth, evident in Elephant and Paranoid Park, with simplicity and innocence. Flirting with nostalgia, Boyhood leaves us with sweet memories of our own youth, while danger to Mason and Samantha is a far cry, even when menace rears its head as an alcoholic stepfather. We also come away with fond memories of Mason and Samantha, the latter shining in one lovable scene in which her movie dad explains protection, when her cringing laughter is aimed straight at her real dad watching the whole thing.
Even with such verity, Linklater is guilty of glossing up his portrayal of youth. Granted, he found a beautiful presence in Coltrane, who at six is adorable and at 18, an instant dreamboat. (A sexy milf’s come-on is totally believable.) Linklater then crams the film with beauty in its later vignettes. Mason’s high school sweetheart, Sheena (Zoe Graham), is as breathtakingly beautiful, and when a brunette angel approaches him on the first day of college, we feel a heavy hand.
Yet, these remain minor notes of interest. Hawk and Arquette, who were brother in sister in Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, are at their best, as is their writer director, who may have just notched his mark as one of America’s greatest.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International and teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and directs the Reel East Film Festival.