Thursday, August 14, 2014
Last year, Richard Linklater closed a personal arc of movie experimentalism with the triumphant Before Midnight. The Before trilogy spanned eighteen years, three films done at nine year intervals, tracking the evolving love between a couple in three different decades. Before Midnight was effectively our last peep into Jessie and Celine’s highly-charged relationship with each other and their own personal inner conflict.
And yet it left us wanting more, either to see the inevitable onset of old age or the awkward earliest years of their romance. Our interests were piqued about the many intimate processes that went into establishing the comfort level of their intricate discussions, the inane little behaviors that is unique to each relationship. Linklater had an ace up his sleeve all this time though and, in an obvious reply to this desire, started a project twelve years ago that finally is ready to stimulate our viewing experience. This stunning new film is Boyhood.
Virtually every review of the film so far has acclaimed the method of its making, heralding it as visionary and it is: Linklater shot it over a twelve year span (2002—2013), filming scenes a couple days out of each year allowing us to see the physical transformation of the actors involved in a real manner, not superficially. Critics have been quick to point out that other film-makers have used this method before, notably Michael Apted’s Up documentaries that have been following the same group of people since they were 7 years old. If this were all Boyhood offered then it would be a technical triumph, pretty much the way Gravity stunned with its cinematography last year but Linklater has written and produced the soundtrack to American youth with this film as well as directing a significant piece of story-telling.
The film follows the progression of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from pre-teen to young adult but it’s not shot from his perspective only. This is Linklater’s distinct directorial style on show; taking in the entire scope of lives and just presenting them as is, not specifically from one viewpoint. Not that he eschews particular moments because when we see the first argument in the film, it is from Mason’s sadly curious eyes as he hides in a darkened corner, observing his mom (Patricia Arquette) lamenting how she moved from being someone’s daughter to someone’s mother in a short time. Linklater doesn’t express judgment through his lens, just painstaking observances, some more nuanced than others. Mason witnesses the changes within his parents and while we watch him watching them, we can sit and observe what registers high on his scale (his dad, who else but Ethan Hawke, forgetting that he promised to give him his car) and what is casually observed (his older sister potentially having sex). It’s this pure maleness of the film that makes it riveting because aside from the usual testosterone bits like ogling semi-naked women in magazines and lying about sexual activities, Boyhood is a rite of passage, an American inheritance reel that has never been attempted in such detail before by an American director. Other directors like Spielberg have centered on youthful fantasies and documenting special circumstances but here Linklater is on a yeoman journey and there’s no special tone being set---this is a long-haul essay into what shapes and turns a boy into a man.
Boyhood, like any great piece of American observational art, is trenchant in its simplicity. Like that immense scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Nigel schools Andie on the importance of Vogue, because she lives her life in such a space it created, such is this film finally creating a space for American cinema to express youthfulness without the trappings of highlights. There are no frills here, just an honest look at life in its ambivalence, similar to the way Bob Dylan deconstructed his own personal demons with the opening four songs on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks so that we can sing along in recognition as well even to this day. We’ve long waited for a new American perspective on something contemporary as youth and pop culture—which, in its own way, is so American—and finally an American director has delivered. The film references this fantastically with the music that plays over many scenes, none more genius that Vampire Weekend’s “One (Blake’s Got A New Face)” to indicate the excitement of Obama’s incoming presidency. As we head into the Oscar season, it wouldn’t be surprising if a better film comes out but I doubt we’ll see a more important American film this year. Boyhood will satisfy Linklater on many levels but it’ll satisfy you the viewer even more because through Mason’s journey, you can cross-reference so much with your own experiences. Scene after scene, from the children queuing up excitedly to watch Harry Potter dressed as little wizards to Olivia’s sudden bitterness towards empty-nest syndrome, Boyhood is the soundtrack to our lives, not just the highly-glamorous bits but the entire Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn parts: scary, uncertain, isolated but resolute in its continuity.