dir: Richard Linklater, USA, 2014
“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river”
— Jorge Luis Borges
Now playing in Chicago and around the U.S in limited release is Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s much ballyhooed “12-years-in-the-making” intimate epic about one family’s life in 21st century Texas. The film’s formally groundbreaking nature has already been much commented upon by critics since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. No one, after all, has ever before attempted to make a fictional narrative feature by shooting the same group of actors over such a long period of time (roughly three days a year for a dozen consecutive years). Linklater’s strategy allows him to show the progression of his protagonist, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, a natural actor at every age), from the first grade through his senior year of high school, but he also devotes considerable time to the other members of Mason’s immediate family: his divorced parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette in an award-worthy performance) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke at his rakish best), as well as his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, also terrific).
Fortunately, there is much more going on here than the mere novelty value of watching a group of actors rapidly age before our eyes. From Slacker (1991) to the Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013), time has always been Linklater’s great subject. Because of the intelligent, daring and sometimes surprising ways that he explores the concept here, Linklater’s latest achieves the status of a magnum opus. Like The Searchers was for John Ford, Boyhood is the purest, most complete expression of Linklater’s considerable artistry to date — the single masterpiece that he has seemingly been working towards for his entire career. Last year, I wrote that Before Midnight established Linklater as the best director of his generation. It is no exaggeration to say that Boyhood establishes him as America’s finest working filmmaker period.
After only two viewings, I am also tempted to say that Boyhood is the single film that best defines American life in the early 21st century. What is especially impressive about the achievement is that, on a narrative level at least, Linklater does not seem to be striving for virtuosity. There is a surprising lack of drama in the storyline; no one dies, no one gets seriously ill, there are no tragic accidents. It is as if the director knew that his mere concept was dramatic enough and that by focusing on the smaller, more intimate details of growing up (first beer, first heartbreak, etc.), they would cumulatively add up to something momentous. In this sense, Boyhood is similar to — but vastly superior to — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I thought there was a great movie inside of The Tree of Life that was dying to get out, an autobiographical one involving a boy growing up in 1950s Texas. Certain moments of that film rang so true concerning suburban American childhood that they unexpectedly caused tears of remembrance to well up in my eyes (e.g., children playing kick the can in the street at dusk before being called home for dinner by their mothers).
Unfortunately, Terrence Malick did not trust that The Tree of Life‘s simple domestic scenes would be sufficiently interesting to sustain an entire feature film and so he couched them in pretentious sequences involving digital dinosaurs and voice-over narration cloaked in cosmic-spiritual hokum. Linklater, on the other hand, confidently constructs his entire movie out of such fleeting moments: in one early scene, young Mason looks at a dead bird on the ground. Later, he and a group of friends walk down the street and pass a mentally ill young man who uncontrollably blurts out obscenities. Linklater rarely indicates what Mason is thinking about such things. He merely observes the character observing, and the film, like time itself, marches inexorably on. Later still, when Mason becomes a teenager, he does begin to question things in his own quiet, introspective and thoughtful way. The total effect of watching this gradual, unforced transformation of his character is to bear witness to nothing less than the birth of an individual consciousness.
A strange feeling came over me as I watched this leisurely paced two-hour-and-46-minute movie (the same length, incidentally, as Transformers: Age of Extinction): at some point I realized that I was actively trying to remember what the characters had looked, sounded and felt like in the earlier portions of the film — when they were literally years younger. This is not something I can recall doing with any other movie, nor any work of art in any medium (aside perhaps from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the ultimate narrative exploration of time and memory). Boyhood‘s astonishing power to incite viewers to meditate on the nature of memory, and no doubt on their own lives as well, while still in the process of watching it is probably a direct result of Linklater’s smart refusal, in any obvious way, to signal shifts in time. There are no title cards reading “One year later” nor are there any blatant cues within the dialogue. I often found myself questioning if a scene was taking place, chronologically speaking, immediately after the one that had preceded it or if the story had jumped ahead a year — and often found the answer only by noticing whether the actors had similar or different haircuts.
By the time Boyhood reaches its sublime conclusion, viewers have traveled through time with the characters on a journey that more than one commentator has likened to a “period piece set in the present”: from the last days of film stock to the dawn of digital (though the film itself was shot entirely on 35mm to achieve a uniform look), from Coldplay to Arcade Fire, from the invasion of Iraq to the rise of Barack Obama (an occasion for two of the film’s funniest moments, presented back-to-back) not to mention the rise of social media (and, eventually, a growing disillusionment with it). Jean Cocteau, another cinematic poet of time, famously said that a movie camera “filmed death at work” (i.e., because a movie literally shows its performers aging, they are closer to their funerals at the end of shooting than they were at the beginning). Yet by speeding this process up, and condensing 12 years into a single feature, Linklater proves that the reverse is also true: to watch Mason and Samantha transition from children into beautiful young adults is like watching flowers bloom in water — Boyhood shows us life at work better than any film I know.
Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Richard Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit. In spite of creating a name for himself by making zeitgeist-capturing comedies about specific subcultures (e.g.,Slacker and 1993’s Dazed and Confused), Linklater has always thankfully avoided adopting an attitude of condescension to his characters, not to mention resisted the kind of David Foster Wallace-esque hipster irony that has frequently passed for humor in America in recent decades. In this respect, I’m particularly grateful for the realistic — and unfashionably warmhearted — way in which he presents Mason Sr.’s conservative and religious in-laws; they bestow their grandson on his 15th birthday with gifts of a bible and a shotgun, respectively, presents that the budding young artist is happy to accept.
While all of the principal characters in Boyhood are flawed, Linklater also wisely refuses to judge them: Olivia may repeat the mistake of engaging in relationships with hard-drinking and abusive men, and Mason Sr. may be a perennial fuck-up (even after he transitions from GTO-driving “cool dad” to responsible family man, he still offers Olivia money while knowing that his wallet is empty and hoping that she’ll turn him down) — yet there is always the sense that these characters are just fumbling through life like we all do, improvising as they go, trying to do the best they can. The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Bill (Marco Perella), Olivia’s second husband, who becomes an increasingly scary control freak, scene by scene, as his alcoholism worsens. But Linklater extends sympathy even to this character by granting him a moment of horrifying self-awareness. “You don’t like me much, do you, Mason?” Bill asks of his new stepson during a particularly tense dinner scene. “That’s okay. I don’t like me either.” Like all of Linklater’s best work, including much of the rest of this film, it is a moment that feels almost impossibly human.
Note: Boyhood is rated R by the MPAA for “sexual references, drug use and profanity” but I do not think parents should hesitate to take teenage children (even young teens) to see it. They are, after all, the ones most likely to identify with the film’s protagonist — as well as the ones most likely to benefit from observing what Linklater shows as the various paths laying ahead of them.
You can check out the trailer for Boyhood via YouTube below: