Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Boyhood Movie Review

Matt Lankes/IFC Films
As far as process in art goes, it’s not often something we consider in movies. When it comes to painting and sculpture, the methods and materials used are often integral to the finished product. More than that, it is often essential whether an artist has produced from a subject or the extents of his own imagination. Narrative filmmaking and the criticism thereof usually focuses on the finished product without much consideration for how the director arrived there. This is, I suppose, because actual production times on movies – not including the script writing process – is usually fairly standard without a great deal of variation, taking no more than a few weeks to a couple of months. But now there is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie that demands attention to the method behind the process. Because Linklater made the film over a period of twelve years, gathering the same actors together for several days once a year to chronicle the growing up process of Mason Evans (played through a dozen years by Ellar Coltrane), we have little choice but to examine how that method makes Boyhood different from any other movie that takes place over a long period of time.

That the story here is quite simply that of a boy growing up into adulthood makes the method essential. We get to watch the same actor age year over year, seeing his baby plump cheeks at six melt away to the awkwardness of a pre-teen, which in turn gives way to the budding facial hair of an adolescent. Truly there is almost no plot to speak of, though there are plenty of movie clichés to fill in the milestone events that arise. There are the new husbands of Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) who are so wonderful at the start, but transition into alcoholic assholes over time. This is the stuff of facile screenwriting. It’s not especially interesting and Linklater and his collaborative actors don’t really take it anywhere substantial, but the point is really to see its effect on Mason. They are ways of marking time as we watch him grow up.

There’s very little that’s remarkable about Mason’s life and no reason we’re ever given why Linklater is telling this story and not some other. But I discovered as the film reached its conclusion after more than two and a half hours that breezed by that this isn’t really just Mason’s journey. The people around him change and grow up as well. His mom transitions from struggling single mom to college student and housewife to jerks, finally arriving at professional woman content with being single and a mother. Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) is absent through the beginning years and then becomes every-other-weekend Dad, a man driving a teenager’s car and trying to find himself, finally settling down as an insurance company re, husband and new father. Mason’s sister (played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei) grows up into a young college woman alongside Mason. As Mason grows and changes, so do those around him, informing his own experiences and the changes he goes through. Then you can hardly help but think about how watching other people around you become different people and find themselves (a process that never really stops during your entire life) you respond and change as a result.

The script provides as many moments of naturalism – particularly those involving Mason and his father or Mason and a couple of females along his journey – as it does clunky scenes that are the inevitable result of using untrained actors in collaborative exercises. One scene in particular stands out in my mind for having forced dialogue that comes across as what teenage boys think they sound like. But that scene also brilliantly plays with audience expectations we have from a diet of formulaic plots. We watch these boys engaged in behavior that could potentially lead to an awful accident, and at once moment Linklater is clearly setting us up for one, but nothing transpires. He seems to be telling us that these actions are typical of all boys as they grow up, but the vast majority of these moments are benign in their conclusions. There was a collective audience gasp when I saw it and a palpable release of tension when the scene ended with no tragedy. That reaction forces us to evaluate why Linklater chose to include it.

Removing from consideration the unique circumstances of Boyhood’s production would leave a not all that interesting film. It is precisely the method Linklater used that makes it intriguing and helps it rise far above the material. Linklater has often experimented with different approaches to storytelling. His debut Slacker was a meandering narrative that never stuck with the same character for more than a few minutes. The Before Sunrise series revisits the same romantic couple three times over eighteen years (so far). He’s playing with traditional narrative formats. And with Boyhood he gives us a work that allows us to observe with intimacy the passage of time within a family. It comes off as eminently watchable. There’s something about witnessing the march of the clock, a dozen years spreading out before our eyes in the space of 165 minutes, that gets at something uniquely human. We know what it is to feel time go by and yet we hardly notice as it’s happening. We don’t notice our own aging selves until we look in the mirror or an old photo and think about what we used to look or be like. In Boyhood Linklater comes as close as possible, I think, to giving us the feeling of seeing the aging and maturing process take place. Strangely, though it’s not traditionally or formally cinematic in the way another movie uses a time jump cut, it is the most perfect example  in cinema of marking the passage of time. This is a hell of an achievement for what it says about humanity and for how it makes us feel at every moment.

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