Friday, July 25, 2014

New movie review: Boyhood

Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, looks up at the sky in the opening shot of Richard Linklater's magnificent Boyhood.

“It’s like all of life has unfolded before us just so we could stand here and say, ‘Fuck yeah!’”

A relatively minor character has this drug-induced epiphany in the closing moments of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and it is as apt an approximation of the preceding film as any. It may seem ironic to begin with the ending, but only at the end can one step back and appreciate the epic achievement of this film.

The groundbreaking nature of the project will be well known to those who follow these things. Linklater assembled his cast, including child actor and star Ellar Coltrane, and filmed over the course of 12 years, capturing as part of a fiction the very real growth of all involved. Coming together every year, the director, cast, and crew documented in real time the milestones and the mundane moments that make up life.

In ways both subtle and direct, it becomes clear this film is about time and the slow but inevitable passage thereof. Every second of the nearly three-hour runtime is required to realize the breadth of what is transpiring on screen. That the movie is rather lacking in plot, which we will get to in a moment, is largely a byproduct of its particular obsession with time, and for what it lacks in forward momentum, it makes up in thematic resonance.

There have been movies chronicling characters who age over time, but except for documentaries, there have not been movies that depict the genuine passage of life. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are bona fide movie stars, and to watch them age naturally on screen – middle-age sag sets in and silver hairs start to appear toward the end – is a pleasure and a surprise given Hollywood’s obsession with youth and appearances.

Hawke is the mostly absent father who wants to be a buddy to his kids, which leaves Arquette with the often-thankless role of the full-time parent and disciplinarian. These are stellar performances, utterly lacking in vanity and which never lose sight of the core of the characters, even as they grow and mature. Parents often get short shrift in coming-of-age movies, but the presence of these two, particularly Arquette, permeates the entire film, and though the movie is called Boyhood, it could just as easily have been Adulthood.

Or Sisterhood for that matter. Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, plays Coltrane’s sister, Samantha, and from the start, she is just as integral to the puzzle as any other piece. While the movie is centered on Mason (Coltrane), Samantha is a fully realized character in her own right, the star of the movie that is her life – as we all are.

She grows up right alongside her fictional brother, and as in life, they grow apart as the years go by, but throughout, they share the kind of well-observed moments that are this film’s stock-in-trade. They laugh and they fight; they share secrets and they tattle; they are rivals and they love each other. They are brother and sister, and nothing could feel more real.

All of which brings us back to Coltrane as Mason, who experiences the boyhood of the title. The movie has many things going for it, but none of it works without Coltrane. In the opening shot, he lies perfectly still on the ground as the clouds go by overhead, and in this moment, it seems as though the universe revolves around him. This is how it is in youth – the world spins, and we stay fixed where we are. Only with the benefit of time do we realize we are simply floating along with everything else.

The power of Boyhood lies in its ability to make us think about these things. It will hit home in different ways for different people, and as the years pass, those same people will have entirely different viewing experiences as they transition from teenagers to adults and from children to parents. Its strength is that it allows audience members to project their own lives onto the characters, and it is unlikely there will be another movie that encourages as many knowing chuckles and nods of acknowledgement that “I’ve been there.”

The universality of the characters and situations can be misleading, though, as the true greatness of the film is its specificity. Audiences leave the theater inspired to reminisce about their own childhoods, to share experiences similar to those depicted, and to think back on how much they have grown and changed over the years. But this movie lingers in the heart and mind long after the cheery nostalgia has worn off and the ever-present “Now” returns. It does so because this is Mason’s story.

Mason is a bright, precocious boy – one imagines Coltrane is as well – who navigates the twists and turns of life in ways that any of us might but in ways that only he can. There is no plot, per se. It is just life. People divorce and remarry. Families move. There is sex and there are drugs. There is honesty and deceit. Love, pain, friendship, music – it is how we live filtered through the eyes of one boy and reflected back at us.

How he views the events around him is the only way to view what happens. After all, this world revolves around him. But in this world of Facebook, Twitter, selfies, and the like, there is virtue in stepping out of ourselves and lying at the center of someone else’s universe. Now, thanks to Richard Linklater, Coltrane, and Boyhood, we all have the opportunity to lie in the grass and watch the clouds roll by through someone else’s eyes.

See it? Yes.

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