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Monday, August 11, 2014

Boyhood (Limited Release Date: 7-11-2014)

        Richard Linklater has been making feature films for the last 23 years, and we're only just now starting to figure him out. Undoubtably one of the most under-appreciated directors of his generation, Linklater's formal elasticity has helped him make minimalist art films (Slacker, the Before trilogy), layered character studies (Dazed and Confused, Bernie), rotoscope animation drama for adults (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), and live-action studio comedy for kids (School of Rock, Bad News Bears). This reluctance to be placed in any single box has threatened to become the very box itself, the auteur's insistence on variety serving as a defining trait of his filmography. Another is sparkling dialogue, as anyone who's melted over Jesse and Celine's crackling discourse, or poured over Waking Life's myriad of delightfully thorny ideas, can readily attest. With the release of Boyhood, the critical conversation has shifted to his obsession with time, the Before series having already incorporated the passage of literal years onto its fictional canvas, Dazed serving as a time capsule waiting patiently to be unearthed. All theories are right in their own way, but I'm here to posit my own; Linklater's real love affair is with the notion of growth.

        Back in the summer of 2002, Linklater cast a 7-year-old boy named Ellar Coltrane in the role of Mason, a character who would take his cues from the young actor's real life, rather than the other way around. Over the course of the next 12 years, Linklater and his crew embarked on yearly visits to Houston, filming for about a week at a time on each occasion. Without a concrete script to work off, the filmmaker consulted with Coltrane and the other three leads (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater, the helmer's daughter), molding the story according to the real-life development of all of the actors, the kids especially. There is no plot, only a two-and-a-half hour window into the youth of a human being, resulting in a film that could somehow be described as either a dull bore or a towering epic depending on whom you're talking to. And since it's me who's talking, let's go with epic.

        I have never seen anything quite like Boyhood. The most obvious comparison is Michael Apted's Up documentaries, but those films, which check in on the real lives of the same handful Brits every seven years, observe the aging of their stars over the course of many chapters, and many hours. Watching this young boy grow into puberty and then approach manhood over such a relatively short period of time makes a real emotional impact, a special effect more awe-inspiring than anything a computer could ever make. One usually shies away from praising a film for its concept above its execution, but Boyhood is that rare instance where form starts to bleed into content. However riveting the story may or may not be, the experience of watching Coltrane stumble through that awkward, immediately relatable thing we call growing up, all while his parents develop both wisdom and wrinkles before our eyes, is undoubtably the most emotional aspect of the picture.

         Another oddly relatable property are the Harry Potter books and films, a collection of stories that featured growing characters/actors whose collective adolescence ran parallel to that of their primary audience. We certainly know that Mason is Generation Hogwarts, Boyhood oft-referencing the series, and even taking time to revel in the joy of a midnight release of The Half-Blood Prince. The picture is constantly dating itself in this manner, and while one wonders how these year-specific citations will effect the film in the future, they recall the impression and importance of pop art on young brains. The fact that six-year-old Mason loves Dragon Ball Z, 14-year-old Mason loves The Dark Knight, and 18-year old Mason reads Breakfast of Champions and jams out to Arcade Fire is neither a mistake nor a minor observation; his interests chart the moments that, at the time, felt important in popular culture, as well as our protagonist's continuing maturation.

         Casting a pair of children in a decade-plus film project is obviously a risky gambit, but for the most part, both Coltrane and Linklater come up aces. The latter grows from the sort of in-your-face precociousness youngsters often take on into an aloofness readily familiar on the faces of many young adults. Coltrane's journey is a bit more rocky; he proves endearingly observant and pensive during his single-digits ages, then morphs into a counter-culture punk, complete with greasy hair, painted nails, and forth-baked ideas on philosophy and society as a whole. I cannot say, in good conscious, that I liked teenaged Mason, but the brattiness that will undoubtedly turn off a multitude of viewers rings completely true to me. Some will claim that Linklater's writing drops off at this point, but all of the cringe-enducing self-satisfaction marks a recognizable point in adolescent development. Hawke and Arquette are perhaps even more wonderful, Arquette especially, as parental figures who attempt to steer their children onto the 'right path,' an agenda that eventually helps them locate their own.

        The last filmic comparison I want to bring up is Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, a flick which Boyhood will likely follow into a Best Picture nomination. No, there are no dinosaurs on hand this time around, but the way in which both filmmakers present childhood memories less as momentous occasions than a series of poignant minor moments strikes an awfully deep chord. Boyhood might not be electric entertainment from cover to cover, but neither is life. I usually don't like this argument, as it favors films that treat boredom as a sort of artistic virtue, but this is an entirely singular example. Linklater's piece isn't a slice-of-life movie with covert plotting and a relatable human cast; it's a slice-of-life unto itself, posing as a feature film. When most movies fail to intrigue for a few consecutive minutes, you start looking at your watch; when Boyhood hits a lull, you just sort of wait it out, just like you would analogous dull periods in your own life. The only things that come off inorganically are the start and the finish, and only because life lays claim to neither an explicit genesis, nor a definite conclusion, outside of the literal. Even after a slow-moving 165 minutes, the end credits still provide a jolt; there's so much more life to live, and Mason has only just begun.

Grade: A

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