Richard Linklater, the Texas born and bred filmmaker, has produced an impressive list of good films over the past 23 years, and made nearly a film a year since 2001. Most are well known to film fans: Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Waking Life (2001), Bad News Bears (2006), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Fast Food Nation (2006), Me and Orson Welles (2008), Bernie (2011), Before Midnight (2013; best of his Paris trio [Before Sunrise & Before Sunset], and now Boyhood. His films tend to be characterized by a lack of a strong narrative and instead a focus on relationships and the inner selves of his characters. This doesn't mean boring, but no car chases, gun fights or explosions. Also, a number of his films take place within a day, such as his Before …. films.
Boyhood is an extraordinary film made in an extraordinary way by an extraordinary director. Linklater shows us a family over a period of 12 years by shooting 3 to 4 days of footage annually over those 12 consecutive years with the same actors. This annual shoot is definitely a first for a feature fiction film. The family is the mother, Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette); the father, Mason Sr., now divorced (Ethan Hawke); a daughter, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter); and a son, Mason (Ellar Coltrane). The film opens with the 6 year old (actually 7 in real life) Mason lying on the grass at his school, looking up at clouds in a blue sky. His mother arrives to take him home and we meet his slightly older sister. Mason and Samantha share a room with a bunk bed; of course with the usual sibling arguments. Olivia is rearing her kids as a single mother and trying to stay afloat financially. She divorced Mason Sr some years ago but their relationship is amiable, and he continues to drop in periodically to see his kids. The kids idolize him and love to ride in his black GTO.
As the title states, the film focuses on Mason Jr, and they are many brief scenes of him playing as a child. He swings very high on a swing set, looks at a dead bird (metaphor?), rides his bike through a dry creek bottom surrounded by lush trees, and does all the things that young boys do. From our prospective he has a nice life in a loving family. But Olivia decides to move to Houston to be near her mother. Everything is either packed or left behind, and the scenes of their leaving are very poignant. The most effecting is the painting over of the door jamb that held the annual heights of the kids. Samantha says "Goodbye house, goodbye yard, goodbye …." and Mason glimpses his friend riding his bike and waving. Mason asks his mother if his father knows they are leaving. Olivia says yes, and Mason responds with "What if he can't find us"? But he does, and there is a wonderful scene of them at a night ball game with fireworks. Another marvelous scene is Mason Jr being given a bible and a shotgun by his grandparents. The shotgun had descended through at least 3 generations. There is nothing snarky about this scene, which is simply a part of rural Texas tradition. Mason Sr takes the kids to a bowling alley, and his sister does far better than Mason. When Mason asks for bumpers to help him guide the ball, Mason Sr says: "No bumpers. Life doesn't give bumpers." There is a very funny scene of Mason and a friend looking at a lingerie catalog, laughing but not really understanding what they are seeing.
There is no grand drama here, but instead the tiny scenes of ordinary life that may become vivid memories for each child later in life. The quotidian becomes memorable, and it occurred to me that this film is as much about memory as story. Linklater transitions from one year of shooting to the next through scene changes, which are often quite subtle. And in a way that slowly seeps into the viewer, we notice that the kids and the adults are getting older. Of course the growing is most dramatic in the kids, but the parents too age. I'm leaving out a huge amount of material, but life goes on, the kids are growing up, and Olivia wonders about her own life. "I was somebody's daughter, then I was somebody's mother!" Almost a universal cri de coeur.
Boyhood is strikingly similar in concept to Michael Apted's documentary series, the most recent of which is 56 Up. Apted picked 20 British children to follow with filmed interviews every 7 years. He began with 7 Up in 1964 and twelve of the children continued throughout the series. The films, especially 56 Up, are quite moving, especially if you have seen the earlier films. But in Apted's series, aging seen in each film is pronounced since the intervals are 7 years. In Boyhood, the aging is gradual over the two and a half hours. Although Linklater had used Arquette and Hawke in a number of his other films, he took quite a risk that his four principal actors would stay with him for 12 years. School experiences are a large part of Mason's growing up, but ironically, Coltrane was home schooled by his Texas parents and never went to public schools.
There is so much packed into this film, the little dramas of everyday life, all shown with such clarity, tenderness, richness and intimacy. The emergence of self as the kids grow up seemed remarkable and haunting to me, a non parent, but no doubt something that every parent has experienced, often with a lump in their throat. Cinematography, as in all Linklater films, is outstanding. Here, Linklater uses music, objects (i-Mac G3), clothing and hair styles as time markers. The pacing seemed quick, as 12 years unfold in 266 minutes. There is little question that Boyhood will be nominated for a number of Academy Awards. I loved it, intend to see it again, and think it the best American film yet this year. Just opened at the Embarcadero and the Kabuki, and at this point doesn't seem to be screening elsewhere in the Bay Area. Like so many good films, best on the big screen. Ciao, Ian
Photos:Courtesy of Boyhood Website