“Grow Up Mason”: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014)

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It’s not often we get a film like Boyhood. In fact we’ve never had a film like Boyhood. Not only has it been hailed as one of the best films of the year but as one of the most ambitious and revolutionary cinematic achievements ever completed. It appears to be the crowning diamond of Richard Linklater’s career to date, an ongoing twelve year project that is the summation of ideas and themes that have populated his work since his very first movie, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. Linklater’s 1988 debut was a fly on the wall observation piece following one character over 80 minutes as he completed mundane day-to-day tasks. Since then his career has consisted of various riffs on this idea of celebrating the ordinary. Slacker leap-frogged from one character to the next during one day in Austin, Dazed & Confusedspent 24 hours with a sprawling cast of high school students as they celebrated the last day of school in Summer 1976. Then there’s his much-lauded Before trilogy which charts the progress of a relationship through brief snapshots released 9 years apart. Which brings us to Boyhood – another fly-on-the-wall project that documents one boy’s childhood from aged 5 to 18 shot piece by piece one year at a time. Boyhood might not be a surprising project for Linklater to undertake but that doesn’t make the feat any less remarkable. But perhaps it’s finest accomplishment is how casually it achieves it’s greatness. The same could be said for Linklater himself.

Sitting comfortably between the abstract and the accessible, Richard Linklater isn’t showy, nor does he appeal to the masses with populist entertainment. Slowly and surely, however he has emerged as one of America’s most unique and celebrated filmmakers. He’s done this one movie at a time, changing pace and refining his voice and technique through bold narrative experiments (Slacker, Fast Food Nation) stylistic off-shoots (Waking Life, Tape) and exercises in old-school storytelling (School of Rock, Me and Orson Welles, Bad News Bears). No matter how different each film might be from the last, Linklater’s voice remains constant. He isn’t a filmmaker to throw bells and whistles at you, instead he sits back and lets you enjoy yourself. There is rarely a sense of serious threat and danger to his work. They’re smaller than that, more frivolous. His films are rarely anchored by characters in deep crisis, instead they involve people at a crossroads in their life, waiting patiently before they embark on the next chapter. This applies to the aimless sprawl of characters in Slacker, the students in Dazed, even Jesse and Celine in the three Before movies always seem to be at a mid-life dead-end each time we check in on them. While his characters sit and enjoy life on pause they usually pass the time by indulging in conversation and philosophizing on the why’s and what-if’s of life, dreams and pop culture. But isn’t this just the perfect representation of life, itself? Sat watching the world go by while talking shit with strangers and friends?

There is a very clear thread from It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to Boyhood. The former a more intense and alienating examination of day to day routine while the latter is a grander, more intimate look into this same routine stretched out over many years. They are both fascinating dissections of the human condition, both ambitious in their own very different ways but the ambition of Boyhood is something to marvel at. The dedication and patience it must take for a filmmaker to commit to a cast and a story that won’t form a cohesive whole for twelve years is staggering. It’s a testament to Linklater’s consistency as a filmmaker that his style and approach holds it all together without being a distraction. Aside from the cast aging in front of your eyes and the country developing over time, each episode eases elegantly into the next. There is a sense that Linklater made this movie in his mind before he started shooting and stuck to that vision over twelve years. It doesn’t feel like he shot endless footage and sculpted a finished product in the editing room. Each year that passes feels like one piece of a larger whole. Think how much people change over twelve years; their tastes, views, attitudes, their personalities! There must have been a threat that the Richard Linklater who started shooting Boyhood in 2002 may not have been the same Richard Linklater who finished it in 2014. Perhaps that was part of the experiment. Who knows, maybe the Boyhood Linklater envisioned in 2002 isn’t this movie but you wouldn’t think so watching the final product. It all feels organic and intentional. That to me is astonishing.

There’s also a threat with a movie like this that it could feel self-indulgent or self-important. The filmmakers may have felt the urge to make a grand statement with such a grand piece of art. But no, Linklater stays true to himself and is happy to just document a life as opposed to heightening it for dramatic tension. Watching Boyhood I was struck with just how relaxed and spontaneous the movie felt, how casually it unfolded, so unforced and gentle. It doesn’t zero in on the obvious touchstones of adolescence in the expected way either. We don’t see Mason’s first kiss, his first love nor do we experience a death in the family. If these events happen they happen off-screen, off the film’s radar but their ripples are still felt in Mason’s blossoming as a young adult. Boyhood deals with their distant consequences as opposed to their actual unfolding. The way Linklater avoided temptation to indulge in any huge dramatic beats is really something. In fact, the film only falters slightly in it’s middle section as Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) finds herself married to a former University professor and drunk who becomes increasingly dangerous as each year passes. He is one of Linklater’s few villains and this subplot is easily the film’s uneasiest section just because it’s the only time a clear arc starts to emerge, somewhat uncomfortably. But the off-hand, anti-climactic way it all concludes justifies it’s inclusion. The subplot threatens to emerge again later as Arquette marries another jerk but this again is soon pushed into the background to focus on much subtler, poignant life experiences.

We are never explicitly told anything about any of the characters but by the end of the film, through living with them in fast-forward and from the strength of the performances we feel we know everything we need to. Ellar Coltrane who plays Mason, the film’s anchor, is terrific throughout to the point where you don’t even feel like you are watching a performance as much as you are watching a life. Mason’s father, played brilliantly by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke, is only a fleeting presence in his son’s upbringing but he lights up the film whenever he’s on screen. He first appears as a roguish yet charming fuck-up and slowly develops into a softer, responsible adult. Linklater never judges him or any of the other characters. He lets them be who they are and doesn’t ask questions. He accepts them, flaws and all. Of all the faces making up Boyhood’s collage, it’s Patricia Arquette may prove to be it’s real star. As Mason’s single mother she has such a strength to her that is endlessly endearing. Seeing her frustrated outbursts as she comes up against her sassy daughter (Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei) are some of the film’s most amusing and truest moments. Her development from single young mother in it’s early scenes to a successful, independent woman by the film’s end is close to being Boyhood‘s most pleasing pay-off. She deserves a good life and when she crumbles into tears during her final scene as Mason uproots to college you crumble with her. She’s absolutely terrific in this film and I really hope she gets some recognition come award season.

At one point Mason asks his father “What’s the point of all this?” and it’s a question that can easily be aimed at the film itself but the answer is clear. We’ve already established that Linklater is a filmmaker interested in the discussions people have as opposed to ultimate choices they make or their final destination. “What’s the point of all this?” seems to be a question that fascinates him and his characters but rarely do they come up with a solid answer. It’s the aimless path of life. Linklater’s approach and worldview can be summed up in one image that is constantly appearing in his work – the view out of a car windshield, watching the open road ahead. This shot is present in Plow, is the final image of Dazed and also pops up again here in Boyhood. It’s the road to nowhere. That which cannot be foreseen. Just as we watch a child become a young man over 165 minutes, we still do not see where he will end up and we don’t need to. During it’s twelve year timescale we see people change in Boyhood, we see life unfold one year at a time through carefully chosen pit-stops but is that to suggest these episodes are the defining moments of Mason’s life over those twelve years? Not at all. They’re simply the most interesting and perhaps collectively are what makes him who he is today.

Boyhood, along with Under the Skin, marks the second of two movies I’ve seen this year that has made me appreciate the sheer, transcendental power of ambitious filmmaking. The two films couldn’t be more different in terms of approach and are told from opposing points of view. One is about an alien looking at humanity from the outside while the other embraces it from within. Under the Skin is challenging whereas Boyhood is involving. Linklater is a different filmmaker to Glazer too. He isn’t pushing cinema forward with striking visual language or unusual film grammar but with character and observation. They are both trying to redefine how movies can be made and what can be engaging about them. While Glazer is cold and methodical Linklater is warm and welcoming. Under the Skin seems to damn humanity while Boyhood celebrates it. It’s funny how these two opposing films seem to be aiming for a similar goal – to reinvent form.

What sets Richard Linklater apart from other filmmakers is that everyone in his films is an individual with an opinion and a voice. His characters don’t emerge out of a faceless mass as outstanding, unique or even cinematic, no, they belong to the ensemble of life and reality but still manage to be nuanced and memorable. Linklater can’t really be compared to anybody else working in American cinema right now, not because he’s necessarily trying to be groundbreaking or daring, but because he is telling stories about characters nobody else is shining a light on. With his seventeenth feature, he has created a beautifully observed examination of growing up and growing old. It’s an extremely subtle journey with an exhaustive sweep that can only be felt once the film has finished and you actually start to think about what you’ve just seen. It achieves a level of truth and reality few films even dare to go near. The set-pieces of Boyhood consist of a father taking his kids bowling, high school kids drinking beer in an abandoned house – endless scenes with little consequence and closure but as part of a whole form a resonant and moving construct. It’s also lacks the boring intensity of high-drama that has come to define so many “important” movies of recent times. The conflicts in Boyhood aren’t life threatening and the film feels light on it’s feet and refreshing as a result. It’s most stylised moments arrive in the form of song choices which perfectly signal the arrival of a new time period. It might be the most naturalistic and genuine character study ever made. It’s certainly the most ambitious. I loved this movie and I can’t wait to watch it again and again. Boyhood might have taken twelve years to complete, but it’s impact will be felt for much longer than that.

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