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Film Review: Boyhood

Richard Linklater, the writer/director of the strikingly witty, verbal, and poignant Before Trilogy, shot his most recent film—the understated epic Boyhood —in 39 days, and in regular brief intervals over the course of 12 years. Boyhood’s prime focus is on the development of an ordinary-—bike riding, video game playing—dreamy six-year-old Texas boy, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) into an 18-year-old college freshman in the span of 166 minutes.

The 6-year-old Mason Jr. lives with an older sister Samantha (the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater), who he quarrels with and who tends to dominate him, and with his divorced, harried mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who struggles financially. Olivia is a strong-willed, responsible, persistent woman, who battles successfully to keep the family afloat, while going to school to become a psychologist. She’s smart and generally levelheaded except that she has a masochistic, self-destructive taste in men. Since divorcing the bohemian, feckless Mason Sr. (played with consummate charm and spontaneity by Ethan Hawke, who has performed in a number of Linklater films), she has a couple of marriages with controlling, brutal, alcoholic men (well-acted, but undeveloped characters). One of her husbands, a college professor, is constantly correcting and shouting at the children and physically abuses Olivia. In Mason Jr.’s words, they are  “a parade of drunken assholes, ” that seem to offer barely any emotional support or love for Olivia, and none for the children, toward whom they only display resentment. One may ask why Linklater gives her two husbands whose behavior patterns don’t differ radically from each other, but in the context of the film it seems convincing.

Linklater also avoids being explicit about why Olivia chooses self-destructive relationships, but implicitly one feels what motivates her is a single mother’s need for the stability and relative comfort that a husband would provide. Still, Olivia never seems to understand why she makes such self-destructive choices.  But this is an episodic film punctuated repeatedly by ellipses —important characters disappear, personality changes occur without any exposition. It’s just the way real life evolves, with loose ends rarely tied up, and with life meandering rather than adhering to a tight, neat narrative. In fact, Boyhood doesn’t have much of a plot line, but it has a richly delineated family at its center.

The film’s core is observed behavior, without any attempt at offering psychological explanations or back-stories  But this leaves the viewer full of questions as to why things develop the way they do, without any real answers offered. For example, the film never explains why Olivia and Mason Sr.’s marriage ends so bitterly. What we do know is that they married early, and that Mason is unemployed and adrift when we first meet him. But compared to the husbands that follow him, even if he is irresponsible, he shines in his moments as a father. He’s sweet and empathetic with the children—genuinely and good–humouredly listening, talking and having fun with them–and we begin to feel that, whatever was wrong in the marriage, they should have stuck it out. Of course, his visits with the kids are only for odd weekends, so he doesn’t have the day-to-day responsibility for taking care of them. It gives him the luxury to behave in a much looser and less controlling manner than Olivia, since he remains removed from the mundane concerns of parenting. It is characteristic of the film that Linklater provides no back story for the marriage breakup, so we are left to speculate and to fill in the gaps about what had happened between Mason and Olivia.

With the passage of time, the children change in ways that seem natural and free of contrivance.  Samantha loses her bratty narcissism, and turns into a sophisticated young college student, who is supportive of her less grounded brother. However, she appears less often in the film as the years pass, and we miss her spirited presence. It’s Mason Jr. whose point of view and personality are central. He’s unsure of himself, and tentative in the early years, and he’s also bullied in school, and does not fight back. He tends to be more of a low-keyed observer of experience than an active participant—watching the world around him with some care. And if he is a touch sullen, and indulges a bit in pot and alcohol, he remains a solid, sensible kid.  When he reaches adolescence, he begins to define himself more clearly as an aspiring photographer who doesn’t like to adhere to the rules. But Linklater himself knows exactly what art demands and has a committed, tough-minded photography teacher emphasize to Mason Jr. that discipline for an artist is as important as natural gifts. It’s a crucial lesson for an aspiring artist.

Adolescence sees him also caught up in the emotional and intellectual confusion that sensitive, questing teen-agers suffer from.  He talks endlessly to his first real girl friend —a serious, pretty girl, whom Mason Jr. mistakenly sees as his is soul mate. He speaks to her about looking for a transformative experience, and getting his life together. His talk feels genuine, if gloomy and slightly tedious, possibly given too much space by Linklater. However, it’s an accurate evocation of the existential muddle many of us have gone through in those years— attempting to make sense of our live as we grow up. What’s noteworthy about Mason Jr. and Samantha is that despite the family’s life being often in flux—during the years the children endure different fathers, homes, and towns—they both miraculously come out of it emotionally intact.

What makes the film distinctive is not just Linklater’s feat of shooting his central figures each year over those 12 years as the actors naturally age along with the characters. Its strength also rests in its gift for both capturing everyday interaction with honesty and insight, and in sharply observing how the passage of time transforms the family. In addition the film’s actors who have collaborated (but rarely improvised) with Linklater in creating their characters, are able to fully embody them with barely a false note. He also uses a perfectly fitting soundtrack consisting of many songs that would stir emotions and in Linklater’s words “ be attached to something real in the film.” Some of the songs on the soundtrack include:Soak Up The Sun” (Sheryl Crow), “Band On The Run” (Paul McCartney & Wings), and one song apiece from Bob Dylan, Freddie Fender, and Ethan Hawke himself.

Linklater is a director who avoids using virtuoso camera angles or constructing stunning compositions. He’s not a great lyrical director like Truffaut, whose semi-autobiographical tetralogy (e.g., 400 Blows, A Stolen Kisses) was filled with indelible images and a number of transcendent moments evoking its protagonist Antoine moving from delinquent boyhood to an irrepressible romantic’s adulthood as a writer. Instead, working with two cinematographers Linklater accumulates the everyday, mostly small, mundane moments of unfolding lives, usually eschewing heightened drama angry confrontations, or striking personal epiphanies.  His film is grounded and earth bound, but the moments accrue into a stirring portrait of growing up as time passes. And those moments can sometimes go deeper than an accurate depiction of the daily. It strikes me yet again how much common experience can be mined for an evocative and incisive film that adheres to a realist aesthetic.

Some of the film’s more emotionally penetrating moments occur towards the film’s conclusion, when both parents say goodbye, in totally different ways, to Mason Jr. before he goes to college. Olivia breaks down and tearfully laments his departure—conveying that her child leaving home marks time passing and seems like something close to death: “I just thought there would be more.” Linklater makes us conscious of the degree of despair and emotional messiness Olivia carries around, without her ever articulating it until this scene.

As his wont, Mason Sr.’s response is cooler, meeting his son in a jazz hall, and offering the kind of fatherly advice his son wants to hear. Over the years Mason Sr. has changed, he is still hip and a political liberal and a non-believer, but more defined and domesticated. He has a child and a new wife, who is quiet and recessive (she is no Olivia), and whose rural parents are Texas Bible readers and gun owners. (What’s striking here is that neither Linklater nor his character Mason Sr, ever treats them with a hint of condescension.)

His advice affirms his son’s individuality—“don’t stick with the pack,” and “answer only to yourself.” And to his son’s obsessive questioning about what the point of life is, he aptly responds that there is no point, “we are all just winging it.”

In the final scene, which seems a touch pat, Mason Jr.’s first day at university turns out to be too perfect. His roommate is unconventional and artistic, and he introduces him to a lovely, sensitive girl who is a dancer. She and Mason jr. go up the mountains eat a pot brownie, watch the sun go down, and achieve a moment of stoned harmony. “It’s always right now,” says Mason. Those are fitting words with which to conclude the film— a feeling of well-being and wonder— though we know that this moment will be followed with ones filled with confusion and even anguish. Linklater is sufficiently optimistic to believe that serenity is possible, but he also views life as a river of shifting feelings, and changes of character.

Boyhood takes a few false steps; there is a trace of sentimentality inherent in a scene where a young Mexican restaurant manager tells Olivia how important her advice about getting an education was to him. But this is a film that usually avoids the predictable and sentimental.

Linklater may be no Michael Apted, whose great British documentary series beginning with Seven Up charted the lives of a group of people from age seven to fifty-six, revisiting them every seven years. Apted’s series, at least in the early installments was based on the premise that there was a powerful relationship between the children’s class backgrounds and the way their lives would turn out. The premise shifted, as class became less of a determinant, but still the social environment continued to play a powerful role.

Linklater’s characters are Texans, but he is not really interested in the way region or class shape a life. He’s neither a political nor social filmmaker. His aim is to both particularize psychologically and universalize the mostly generic experiences of Mason Jr. In Boyhood he has succeeded in doing just that, skillfully capturing the flow of one ordinary and unique life from boyhood through late adolescence.

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