Review by Ken Burke Boyhood
Richard Linklater spent 12 years making this film as his actors aged naturally through a child’s life from grammar school to college, a simple but compelling story.
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I’ve seen an ad somewhere for Boyhood (Richard Linklater) in which quotes from different critics are cited to call this film the best of “the year,” “the decade,” and “the century” (I guess we’re far enough into the 21st of our relatively-recent-century-cycles to start making such outlandish claims, although only being at July of 2014, along with just 5 years out of 10 of the current decade is a bit too early to make these other pronouncements either, in my opinion)—of course, I can’t find it again to tell you who said which of these accolades so if anyone happens to notice it please pass along the specific citations. Certainly, I can agree that this marvelous-cinematic-idea-made-into-a-tangible-film is one of the best of each of these designations, although I can’t say that it’s the absolute tops in any of them (for this year so far I’d pick the Polish story Ida [Pawel Pawlikowski] set in the early 1960s about a young girl about to become a nun who finds out that she’s Jewish and her family was killed during WW II, with a review in our June 3, 2014 posting; for this decade it’s a toss-up so far between the only 2 current films I’ve gone to 4 ½ of 5 stars for, The Master [Thomas Paul Anderson, 2012; review in our September 27, 2012 posting] and Twelve Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013; review in our November 14, 2013 posting]; and for this young century, I think it’s way too early to be making such pronouncements, although the ones I’ve just mentioned could all be contenders, along with Amour [Michael Haneke, 2012; review in our January 24, 2013 posting], A Beautiful Mind [Ron Howard, 2001], Black Swan [Darren Aronofsky, 2010], Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005], The Departed [Martin Scorsese, 2006], No Country for Old Men [Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007], and I’m sure some other worthy ones that I’m forgetting at the moment). What I can say with no hesitation about Boyhood, though, is that it’s a successfully-audacious-concept for a fictional film (although the premise has been seen before in the documentary world with Michael Apted’s Up series which began in 1964 [Paul Almond directed the first one], with the filmmaker returning every 7 years so far to examine what’s been happening to his “cast” of 14 British former-children-now-adults during the intervening time, which has now taken us to 56 Up —a concept copied in many other countries as well due to the positive response to this one), in which Linklater recruited a group of actors—Ethan Hawke as Dad Mason Sr., Patricia Arquette as Mom Olivia, his own daughter Lorelei Linklater as daughter Samantha, and casting-victor Ellar Coltrane as son Mason Jr.—in 2002, then shot a few scenes with them and others through the period of the next 12 years with the result that we come to know these characters as individuals who age with us over our lives (even though we haven’t met them until now, there are enough clues as to what year we’re in along the way so that we can connect our own histories to theirs, as this transition from elementary through high school feels all too familiar).
Normally in years-spanning-movies, we have only present-tense-people who must be altered through makeup in order to appear younger or older (one of the most celebrated of that sort being Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb in Little Big Man [Arthur Penn, 1970] being aged from his actual 32 years at the time to 121 in the film, with a new example about to hit our screens when we’ll soon see Chadwick Boseman cover many years of James Brown’s life in Get On Up [Tate Taylor]) or—in more drastic cases—there must be different actors playing the same character in order to compensate for how a body changes over a period of many years (such as with Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando taking on various ages of Vito Corleone in the first two parts of The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola; 1972, 1974] or Nymphomaniac: Volume I and II [Lars von Trier, 2013; reviews in our March 20 and April 3, 2014 postings] in which Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg play the younger and middle-aged Joe, a woman with an insatiable appetite for orgasms, with or without a partner). In contrast to those standard approaches, with Linklater’s methods in Boyhood we see those changes in his film as just being the natural aging of the cast, with facial hair coming and going on the men, hair color changing for Samantha, and hair length alternating between the extremes of shaggy and complete burr for Mason Jr. We also see a succession of fathers (well, father-figures, actually, as I don’t think that either of Olivia’s next husbands after Mason Sr. adopted her children as these guys go completely out of the picture after their respective divorces—useful for the plot that they just disappear—but that’s just another of many facts that aren’t necessary to understand what’s happening in the larger context of these people’s lives) as Samantha and Mason Jr. weave their way through public school in Houston, then move on to their university years toward the end of this lengthy narrative, well-structured so that we hardly notice how much running time has passed.
While Mason Sr. was obviously not a fully-compatible-match for Olivia (we don’t see too much interaction between them, as they’re already divorced when the story picks up with Mason Jr. in first grade, but their initial on-screen-encounter results in an argument, just as does the frustration of Olivia’s current boyfriend that they can’t go out that night because she couldn’t get a babysitter; she truly loves these kids but their presence in her life is a constant source of tension with any man that she tries to couple up with), at least he truly cares about his kids and relishes the every-other-weekend-arrangement that he has with them, whereas the next guy to wed Olivia, Bill Welbrock ([played by Marco Perella] he’s a professor in one of her psychology classes when she uproots her kids to move to Houston so that she can finish her college work, leading to a job that will better support the 3 of them), has 2 kids of his own from a former marriage—an older daughter and a younger son, so there’s the possibility of a natural merge of the households—but deteriorates over the years into someone who first seems to favor Mason over his own son, then turns hostile to both of Olivia’s kids, then becomes a troubled alcoholic that Olivia finally leaves behind, much to his chagrin (but at least he doesn’t reappear after an embarrassing scene where he finds that his wife has disappeared, then cleaned out the ATM account so—already a bit toasted in mid-afternoon—he scrawls his signature on a [bum] check, then sends the boys into his local liquor store to cash it for him; even more embarrassing for the available-co-dependency of dysfunctional families everywhere, the store clerk sees Bill out in his car so he cashes the $500 check [I’m surprised Bill didn’t want the kids to pick up a couple of quarts of vodka while they were at it]). Some years later, Olivia’s gone all the way through a master’s degree and is teaching in San Marcos (at what I think is Texas State University [called Southwest Texas State U. when I was in the area, most of the years from 1966-1976]) where she hooks up with one of her students, Jim (Brad Hawkins) an ex-GI catching up on his college work after a few tours of duty in the Middle East; Linklater doesn’t bother us with explanatory details, but through appropriate circumstantial evidence we understand that he’s the latest in Olivia’s husband line, a seemingly-decent-guy in our first couple of encounters with him but as Mason gets older this newest stepdad finds work as a corrections officer at a local prison, is yet another boozer, and—like the previous jerk—becomes increasingly hostile toward Mason and his disinterest in the traditional Texas religions of football, guns, and a solid preparation for a business career, but Mason instead “develops” a strong interest in photography (sorry, couldn’t resist), which eventually gets him a college scholarship as Boyhood wanders toward its arbitrary ending (at least for now; given that Linklater’s been revisiting another Ethan Hawke character, Jesse, and his along-the-way-wife, Céline [Julie Delpy], in the Before Sunrise , Before Sunset , and Before Midnight [2013; review in our June 5, 2013 posting] series, we can’t count out the possibility that the Boyhood troupe is under secret contract to keep this saga going into Mason Jr.'s undergrad school and beyond, so we’ll just have to see if they surprise us in another dozen years).
The reason I’ve dwelt so much on Olivia’s change-partners-routine (if you’re possibly still humming “Woodstock” from my previous review of Lucy [posted on July 30, 2014] maybe you’d like this Stills tune right now [one of his best solo hits], “Change Partners,” at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=BA6lPXT wV-E [a good audio recording of a live performance but with nothing much happening in the visuals, somewhat like Olivia’s marriages where some of the situation is working but not completely]) is that despite the name-brand-value that Hawke brings to Boyhood (and its available publicity stills which feature him quite a bit, thus explaining the poorer image quality of some alternatives that I had to scrounge up for photo variety), he’s more of a flow-in-and-out-character throughout this film (with his own couple of post-Olivia wives and a new baby that we don’t see much of in the overall scheme of things, although this Dad’s continuing presence continues to mean something of value to Mason Jr. as those other useless father-surrogates fall by the wayside over the years) whereas Arquette’s Olivia is a constant in her son's life (as well as Samantha’s, but after all this is called Boyhood not Childhood so she’s increasingly less important in the overall focus, especially after she heads off to college at my old alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, while Mason still has a couple of years of high school to finish back in small-city San Marcos). Olivia is a strong-but-battered-character (sometimes literally although we don’t get graphic scenes of that) who gives all she can of herself for the good of her kids, even when they’re resisting her all the way as with what she often calls Samantha’s “horse shit attitude” and Mason’s mumbled “I dunno”-type responses to her concerns, but despite having good reason for us to care about her exhaustive life (even when she’s got the college teaching job, but with a Master’s rather than a Ph.D. so I imagine that her pay’s not that great and her job security is tenuous—rather than tenured) it’s critical for her that when her own kids head off to college that they become financially-independent, just as she forces them to accept her downsizing by getting rid of the family house, moving into a smaller apartment, then beginning to disappear from our story as the focus has shifted to Mason’s final years in high school, his very-on-again-suddenly-off-again-romance with fellow-social-outcast Sheena (Zoe Graham)—that is, until she starts dating a college guy who happens to be an athlete (at least it’s just lacrosse rather than the full-Establishment-zombie-sport [as far as Mason’s concerned] of football)—and his eventual escape. (His college not specified but intentionally far from home, yet still in-state to help Mason Sr.’s contributions to the costs, so I’m speculating either U.T. at the Permian Basin [in Odessa] or U.T. at El Paso, simply because wherever he is it seems fairly big but is close enough for him, his new roommate, and their likely new girlfriends to jaunt off for a hike in Big Bend National Park, in the area where the Rio Grande makes a major course change as it separates a ruggedly beautiful mountainous area of Texas from Mexico—although I guess they could be at Sul Ross State U. in Alpine, much closer to Big Bend and former college home of my father, for about a week before he got pissed about some of their policies so instead he jumped a few freight trains, then ended up during the Depression working with my grandfather in the Civilian Conservation Corps.)
None of these events are developed in any better detail that what we’ve experienced before because Linklater (director, not daughter) is determined that we’re to weave in and out of this boy’s life as if we just meet up with him at some annual family reunion and figure out for ourselves what’s going on rather than have all of the links along the way explained to us. Linklater does provide a few chronological clues such as Mason Sr. taking his kids to a Houston Astros game when (potential Hall of Famer, depending on how the steroids situation finally resolves itself in the next few years) Roger Clemens is pitching for the home team, which must be 2004 or 2005, then we have a scene where kids are waiting anxiously for the release of J.K. Rowling’s novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which is definitely 2005, finally we have Mason Jr. and Samantha asking neighbors to put Obama-Biden signs in their yards (some do, some vehemently don’t) but then they also steal a McCain-Palin sign so we know this must be 2008. Otherwise, we can tell that the kids are growing, at times Mason Jr.’s hair has changed styles (once very arbitrarily when Bill forces him to get a burr, shearing off his substantial locks) or Samantha’s has changed color, or we notice other minor-but-telling-environmental signs that the scene we’re currently watching isn’t a direct follow-up to the previous one, although initial cues certainly give us reason to think that until we observe more closely (which is exactly what Linklater is trying to encourage us to do—a tactic that takes us all the way back to his debut feature, Slacker , where there’s no foundational plot nor continuing characters, just a lot of vignettes in Austin where we follow one person or small group around for awhile, then something happens so that in a metaphorical sense the baton is passed to the next focused-upon-someone until such time as we shift our focus again to the next incident [I swear I had an idea for a film such as this back when I was at U.T. in the mid-1970s and mentioned it to my friends, so I’m sure that the concept just hung around Austin for years until Linklater pulled it out of the ozone; Richard, if you’re reading this—and I know you are—what about some royalties checks, huh, big guy? Just sayin’, ya know?]), all of which forces us to pay attention to what’s going on in the present, just as Mason Jr. finally ends our voyeuristic observation of most of his life with his emphasis to that emerging new girlfriend on “the moment” and how we should always be focused on that rather than obsessing about the past or the future: more specifically he’s responding to her question about whether when a situation seems right do we seize the moment or does the moment seize us. I'd say he's opting for awareness, if not control, of whatever's happening.
Linklater has given us plenty of present moments with Mason Jr., along with his family and friends, which gives us every reason to applaud his vision, his determination, and his success at capturing a seemingly-seamless-immersion where 12 years of these people’s lives have been compressed into about 2:45:00 on screen, which flows by easily in the theater as long as you prepare properly beforehand to avoid bathroom breaks (because it’s all so casual, so reminiscent of the lives we all share that you’d never be able to tell if you missed anything significant, so if you left for a brief break you’d sit there afterward distractedly wondering if some key scene eluded you—it didn’t [although younger audience members might be aghast that Mason Jr. is so determined to be real rather than a techno-screen-person that he’s seriously contemplating deleting his Facebook page]—possibly missing the essence of the rest of it all as it finally wanders to closure in a Big Bend canyon). One casting point to make, though, is praise to Dad Linklater for being able to coax (or just record, depending on how much of a natural she is) fabulous performances from his daughter, Lorelei. I know that the needed time-space-convergence couldn’t have been in place for this to happen (unless director Linklater somewhat stumbled onto a time machine), but I can’t help but wish he’d been able to go back to 1990 to show Coppola some footage of a daughter becoming a successful screen presence either in an attempt to pass on some secrets or just dissuade Francis entirely from casting Sofia as Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III ( which never would have happened had Winona Ryder not reported very sick to the set, forcing a last-minute-actor-change). Lorelei is such a natural, such a strong screen presence in the earlier years when she’s very sassy to her mother, much the preening peacock to her grandmother in contrast to her messy, scattered brother (although she recedes as the film goes on, but that’s likely as well for the typical sullen teenager, given that we’re seeing her mostly with her mother and little brother, not in extensive conversations with her like-minded-friends). Coltrane is a wonder as well, as everyone has already said, a fabulous chance-investment that paid off magnificently over the years; however, his subtle-but-commanding-screen-presence is supported and enhanced by the caliber of the ensemble he’s working with at all ages throughout this story, allowing Linklater Sr. to dazzle (rather than daze and confuse) us with this most unique, most penetrating look into ordinary lives made somewhat-extraordinary because we become so invested in these characters, watching them intently.
We must participate actively in understanding the details of those life decisions, making constant assumptions about the details that have been intentionally withheld from us (as great Realism filmmakers have been doing since the early days of Charlie Chaplin roughly a century ago), and the unanswered questions of what will become of them next. In Lucy (Luc Besson; review in our July 30, 2014 posting) the main characters—with the help of Lucy’s (Scarlett Johansson) super-brain-boost—determine that time is the only relevant measure in the universe, as events have no meaning unless they have progressed over some duration (whether it’s the billion years that life was existed on our planet or the roughly 24 hours that Lucy has to reach full-cognitive-capacity before her body dies from the rapid acceleration of her cells); Linklater proves the same in Boyhood as the individual events of Mason Jr.’s life aren’t so drastically significant (although they may have seemed that way to him at the time as he’s uprooted for the Houston move, gets all of his hair cut off, witnesses Bill’s plate-throwing-tantrum at dinner, is irritated that Mason Sr. sold his precious GTO rather than giving it to his son for his 16th birthday [instead he gets a Bible and a 20-guage-shotgun from his new grandparents, which he quietly but graciously accepts]) but in accumulation they produce who he is for this “time-being” and set him on a personal course for whatever the next years may bring as he begins a more independent life away from his family and previous friends. Boyhood, as well, needs more time to establish itself as the cinematic-game-changer that it’s being touted as, more opportunity to resonate against what’s come before it in past and current film history as well as how it may stand up against whatever else is produced this year, decade, century. For now, though, it’s a very engaging, satisfying experience, possibly similar to what we are reputed to see in moments of supreme trauma (including immediate-pre-death) as past events of our life flash before our eyes (but in a unique, time-suspended-manner so that even this near-3-hour-summary would likely feel like it occurs in mere seconds; but for the counter-experience of such a chronological summary you might want to search out the much-more-obscure Happy Christmas [Joe Swanberg; review in that same July 30 posting] in which events generated by a troubled protagonist take on much more weight because that story is focused on just a few badly-mismanaged-days in the life of a late-20s woman trying to gain better control of her situation). In this way, we’ve been treated to a life-flash of Mason’s presence on the planet (along with his necessary surrounding cast) in a procedure that may have approximated real life in a fictional setting more uniquely and successfully than any such film has been able to accomplish prior to Linklater’s folly-transcended-experiment. It’s all so ordinary that it becomes somewhat extraordinary, well worth your carefully-considered-investment of that precious commodity—time—so essential in Boyhood and Lucy, both vying now for your attention, both well deserving of it.
As for my regular concluding Musical Metaphor, to speak in another voice to the circumstances of Boyhood, I find only one reasonable choice, the Beach Boys' “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” (from their 1965 album, The Beach Boys Today!) at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=0EzEh W1VO9M (a live performance from back in the day, appropriately ragged in places; conceptually, it also seems appropriate to offer this version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOTJ0Ir0ygo [where the raggedness comes via recording from within the audience rather than having a tap to the house sound system] shot at their 50th anniversary tour 2 years ago, sadly without Carl and Dennis, except in video recordings from when they were alive [I saw this show when it got to Berkeley, one of the best of the many times I've seen this group—the originals, that is, not the shell of the band just fronted by Mike Love and Bruce Johnson still playing today under the original name (August 1, 2014 Mountain Winery, Saratoga, CA for example)] when they’d grown up to be the men they are now; but if all of this raggedness is ruining the song for you, here’s the actual recording at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgTRU-UVLwA). It probably seemed too cheesy to Linklater to use in his soundtrack (and too out of keeping with the other songs employed) but for me it fits perfectly, just like when George Lucas kicked off his end credits of American Graffiti (1973) with the Beach Boys' “All Summer Long” (from their 1964 album of the same name—even though Lucas' film is set in 1962 with almost all of the rest of the soundtrack as era-appropriate), so I’ll just add it myself here and wonder what great new approach to filmmaking Linklater will come up with next (even as I applaud him, native Texans that we both are, for so well capturing the sense of growing up in that state, reminding me of my own formative years in Galveston and El Campo; my boyhood came about 4 decades earlier than Mason’s but only the surface environment [such as cellphones; damn, those early ones were big] has changed, the inner experiences still seem much the same—however, I’m very lucky to have had an adoptive Dad who was much better for me than any of Mason’s fathers were for him, even accounting for those missed days with Eddie Burke as he perfected his golf game while I withdrew into my private world of comic books and TV shows) as he may be clandestinely following Mason Jr. around until it’s time for this insightful kid to deal with his own (father-related?) midlife crisis (stay tuned, if you’ve got that much time).
If you’d like to know more about Boyhood here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9q2L17ze70 (16:35 interview from Sundance Film Festival premiere of the film with director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater)
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