Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Boyhood

Boyhood (2014), as fitting for a movie with that title, chronicles the childhood of a boy as he grows and matures from age 6 to 18. The movie opens with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he lies on the grass outside his elementary school and ends with him arriving at college and hiking through a desert canyon.

How does Coltrane play a character who ages twelve years over the course of the narrative? Makeup? CGI? Nope, writer-director Richard Linklater, of Dazed and Confused fame, another coming of age story, filmed the movie over the course of twelve years, maintaining the same actors as they aged.

I don't know of any other film that does that. Plenty of films show characters at different ages in their lives, but they usually achieve the effect through cinematic trickery or using multiple actors for the same part. The only other similar instances I can think of are the Phantasm series and the collaboration between director Francois Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Leaud that began with The 400 Blows, but even those examples occurred over multiple films and weren't planned from the start that way.

To devote so much time to one film is an ambitious undertaking and risky. You have to count on the actors still being able to return to the roles, that they'd be willing to, and that life wouldn't derail filming plans, and that's not counting whether the financiers would be willing to commit money to such a long-term project that doesn't sound too commercial. If nothing else, Linklater deserves credit for trying something different.

But you've might have noticed, I'm five paragraphs in, and I haven't gotten to my thoughts on the movie. Did I like the movie? I don't know. I admired its craft and performances, especially by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason's divorced parents, and it is fascinating to watch Mason go from a wide-eyed little boy to a sullen teen with a passion for photography who discovers life is not filled with answers or direction.

The movie is loaded with dramatic potential - single parents, alcoholism, abusive stepfathers, first romances, partying teens, parent-child relationships, sibling rivalry - but Linklater doesn't pump them up with artificial importance; he merely documents them, depicting this hodgepodge of events in the life of this boy. Many scenes occur and are never referenced again. If the film feels meandering, random, and unfocused, well, that's life. The changes these characters go through - physical, emotional, and otherwise - are subtle, gradual, and plausible. Boyhood doesn't build to confrontations or climaxes; it marks time.

But, boy, it is a long time, nearly three hours in length. Some moments are quite powerful, but during others, my attention wandered. I won't say the movie is boring, but it's low key and eschews dramatic tension and action. If Boyhood were a conventional film, filmed over the course of several months instead of several years, would the life of Mason be of cinematic interest? I doubt it. He lives his life, and we follow him. There's no catharsis or great realizations other than life has no catharsis or great realizations.

Linklater loads the film with cultural references to mark the passage of time. Mason's sister sings Britney Spears songs, Roger Clemens pitches for the Astros, Ethan Hawke rants about the Iraq War, Mason and his sister plant Barack Obama campaign signs, and there are prominent closeups of MP3 players and iPods. How quickly the world changes.

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