“I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and come out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, “Sit down,” I stood up
Ooh… growin’ up.”
Richard Linklater loves time, or at least he loves making films in which people reckon with moments past, currently happening or about to happen off on some indeterminate horizon. Whether it’s high-schoolers trapped in Texas and the mid-70’s in “Dazed and Confused,” two tourists gallivanting across Europe and the stages of romance in the “Before” trilogy, Linklater has no issue letting his camera just hang back and watch two people wax nostalgically, poetically, fearfully, hopefully, whatever kind of wax it is, this Texan auteur thinks it’s necessary to capture it on celluloid if it has any connection to the stasis they find themselves in (or wish they found themselves in).
In my situation, three years out of college, working a retail job beneath the degree that’s gathering dust in some corner of your parent’s house, looking for some kind of release from said job and the lifeless, alien hometown you find yourself trapped in, it’s not a huge imposition to gather some kind of perspective on how you get to this point, not out of regret, but because 26 is an age in which you finally get an opportunity to do so. So it’s not hard to empathize with Linklater’s modus operandi as a writer/director.
In “Boyhood,” the justly-acclaimed, beautifully composed and profound new film from the Texan auteur, Linklater wanted to give that screw one extra, audacious turn. In 2002, he took a young boy named Ellar Coltrane, his own daughter Lorelei, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as their on-screen parents and filmed them for a few days a year every year until 2013, to tell a story of a boy named Mason growing up and actually aging before our eyes. Not just a coming-of-age story, but a becoming-of-age.
The late Roger Ebert often referred to movies as the great “empathy machine.” “Boyhood” rebuilds the machine from the ground up in it’s accumulation, never a compression, of the experiences that Mason has from pre-adolescence to the onset of manhood. But the enormous undertaking that is the film’s structure is just a blueprint. It is a truly great film because it’s filled with Linklater’s wit, his wonderful eye for time and place, his graceful, flowing dialogue, his unassuming style; those are what you need to build a movie. It’s not a slice of life, it’s the entire pie.
In 2002, we meet Coltrane as Mason when he’s six years old, underneath the endless Texas sky and the earnest jangle of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” His mother and father are divorced, the former going back to school to be a teacher and rebuild her life, the latter an amateur musician who sees his kids as playmates more than he sees them as parental responsibility. His smart-ass older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is right along with him, filling in Mason’s watchfulness with brattiness that evolves into sardonic wit. And…that’s about it. Those wishing for traditional plots to needlessly pick apart can look elsewhere; the film’s few attempts at providing old-fashioned conflict, which is whenever Mason’s mom finds a new suitor or husband who turns out to be an alcoholic malcontent, are its clumsiest moments. This film doesn’t need melodrama, it succeeds because the central conceit, watching these people change as their lives go on in the movie and real life, brings about unprecedented emotional crescendos.
“Boyhood”‘s structure never gets in the way of its journey; it folds into it and compliments it seamlessly. The first time Mason and his family move to a new city, we get a shot of Mason’s friend waving him goodbye as their car passes. We see him painting over the height measurements on the wall of their old house. We see Masons’s face a couple years later, seething in a barber’s chair when his stepfather forces him to get a buzzcut to look “less like a little girl.” Mason and Samantha take in a Houston Astros game with their dad, their hairstyles change along with their tastes in music, on and on. Linklater matter-of-factly seams together these moments in away that feels, in the early stretches of the film when Mason is still a little kid, a tad choppy, but everything this movie does, from the structure of the script, the length of scenes, the musical cues, is all part of Linklater’s master plan: capturing the feeling of memory and putting it on screen. This is why the scenes where Mason and Samantha are pre-adolescents in elementary school feel shorter, more confined. Later on when Mason goes to high school and then college, scenes get longer; dialogue becomes more florid, the ambience becomes more distinct. We remember events that happened more recently with more clarity, so the film mirrors that process. We remember whatever ubiquitous novelty or manufactured pop songs were playing on the radio. Once you take in “Boyhood” and process it as you’re watching it, its power grows exponentially in a way I’ve never seen in a movie.
Also, you must add in the fact that although Linklater had some semblance of a script and shape he wanted the film to take, a lot of it is flying blind. The arcs of Mason’s parents are easier to handle. Patricia Arquette gives quiet strength and dignity to Mason’s mother Olivia, a woman desperately trying to hold her family unit together, despite her lapses in judgment. Mason Sr., given jittery, rascally warmth by a never-better Ethan Hawke feels more like an overgrown kid than a father, but Hawke’s own boyish appearance diminishes over time, as his character grows up right alongside his son. But Coltrane is the wild-card. Cast when he was 7-years-old with no acting experience, he starts the film as a non-descript kid, calmly observing the changes to the world around him (Linklater uses music and insert shots of gadgetry and other pop paraphernalia to capture the passage of time better than any title card could). But Mason, as teenagers are known to do whether they like it or not, becomes the true product of his parents and environment. He takes a liking to photography, and has an off-kilter political perspective. Coltrane becomes more comfortable in front of the camera and his performance deepens immensely (Lorelei Linklater as Samantha retreats as the film goes along, however). The film takes full-flight once this protagonist becomes a full-fledged character; since Linklater didn’t know what kind of actor he was going to have, he had to tweak the film’s progression on the fly; the film itself grows and learns as its characters do. This symbiotic relationship between the film’s presentation and its making is something to behold.
“Boyhood” is also a love letter to Texas; schools have their own pledge of allegiance. Mason receives a Bible and a rifle from his grandparents on his birthday. It’s a state home to endless hills and the sub-bohemian paradise that is Austin. A haven for outsider art and Confederate flags in equal measure. Few filmmakers make locations come to life more than Linklater does. Where you are has a direct relationship with who you are.
“Boyhood”‘s ramshackle yet hugely ambitious construction does nothing to drown out the film’s beautiful observance, it’s detailed depictions of everyday life, the heft that is built from personal experience. It’s 12-year-journey is its own complete beast. Richard Linklater’s greatest achievement is a series of landmarks, which is only fitting since the movie deserves to become a landmark itself.