Boyhood: An Intimate Epic

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If Richard Linklater were anonymous, like one of those painters who never signed their work, maybe he’d be known as The Master of the Gimmick. His first film, Slacker, tracked talk like a contagion or a unit of currency as it passed from one character to another, beginning with himself. Boyhood, his latest film, was shot over the course of twelve years. It’s an epic bildungskino that follows a kid called Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade to his first day at college.

It’s fascinating to watch all that time go by on screen, twelve years in 165 minutes. Mason’s changes are the most noticeable and dramatic. He morphs from the cute kid pictured above into a potential candidate for The Sons of Lee Marvin. We’ve seen people age in movies before – the old school, theatrical kind of ageing that relies on makeup and acting (Welles at 25, spanning Kane; more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar); also the multiple-actors-in-a-single-role kind of ageing, often unconvincing, but which worked so well in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (Stacy Martin as a not-much-younger version of Charlotte Gainsbourg), precisely because of its anti-realism – but we’ve never seen anything quite like Boyhood. The closest thing to it is François Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine Doinel, which began with Jean-Pierre Léaud at fourteen in The 400 Blows and ended with him at thirty-five in Love on the Run. But that was a series of five films and the effect is different because of the gaps between them; they are closer to Linklater’s own Before Trilogy, which follows two lovers played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, each installment made nine years after the last.

The cuts in Boyhood, from year to year, are done without titles, announced only by well-chosen soundtrack indicators, non-diegetic, but the kind of tunes we suppose Mason might have been jamming to at the time (Vampire Weekend in 2008, The Black Keys in 2010). Pop-culture and politics are not ignored, an embrace that makes the film not just a time capsule of Mason’s childhood but of the zeitgeist and our own lives – as Charlie Sexton sez, the kid makes me feel old. There’s Harry Potter and Hot Topic and “Oops, I Did It Again,” and Hawke, as Mason’s dad, is arch left-wing: he takes a dig at Sarah Palin’s daughter’s teen pregnancy; orders Mason to grab a McCain poster off some asshole’s lawn. It’s refreshing to see a film so resolutely not try to please everyone, although it seems to be doing so – Boyhood currently holds a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film isn’t perfect. I thought it was tacky and condescending, the way Patricia Arquette’s character (“Mom”) inspires a Hispanic workman to enroll in community college and how now he’s the manager of a restaurant and the family’s brunch is on him. Aside from the overly-illustrative and agendized nature of the scene, it felt like a throwback to more traditional ways of conveying the passage of time, a contrived, self-congratulatory character arc that says, “And look at him now.”

I also had problems with the treatment of the two post-Hawke husbands, “the parade of drunken assholes.” The first, Professor Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella), is a little too over-the-top awful. We know right away that he is bad because during his lecture on Pavlov’s theory of unconditioned response, he refers to sexual attraction as only occurring between members of the opposite sex; immediately, he is pegged as a creepy, non-liberal jerk and, in case you don’t find the dopey wardrobe-slash-general demeanor equally off-putting, he sleezily says, within earshot of Mason: “Nice kid,” and in the same breath, “Think you can get grandma to do a little babysitting?”

Of course, the real problem is he’s a violent drunk. It’s hard to pick apart effective renderings of abuse, which is all too real – and Perella’s performance is very good, even outstanding – but what about showing some of the qualities that make Arquette’s character say he’s not all bad, the qualities that made her decide to set up a Brady Bunch-like union with him and their two boy/girl sets of kids, the happy image of a second chance, modern American family. The implication is she did it out of a misguided desire for security, and this is part of what makes her character so interesting: she’s a good mom, but a lousy judge of character. He’s a caricature so she can be “real.” And I couldn’t help feeling that the intense drama of these scenes – the only part of the movie in which we drift away from Mason’s perspective – is to make up for a lack of narrative interest in Mason’s life at the time. A kid playing video games is only so cinematic (thankfully, he outgrows that stuff pretty fast, even talks of ditching social media altogether at circa 16).

Husband #3 is a less horrible and less interesting version of Husband #2, and I wonder why they weren’t combined. He buys Mason his first camera (an interest that sticks with Mason through the rest of the film) and he doesn’t throw things across the dining room table. We do, however, get an insert shot of a beer can being opened and it’s precisely here that we understand he’s another one of Mom’s “bad life decisions.” Shortly after, he says a few unfair things to Mason, beer cans rattling at his feet, and we cut to a year later and he’s out of the picture. This abrupt dismissal reminded me of TV, where characters are expendable, frequently dropped, either because the writers get bored, or the producers correlate a slump in the ratings, or the actor spots a better opportunity and bails – problems this production opened itself up to by shooting the film over the course of so many years and without contracts.

But Boyhood is better than TV, which, even in this so-called Golden Age, is all about exposition, “moving the story forward.” Boyhood is about moments – not just the “definitive” milestones, but the “throwaways,” and it’s these that make the movie great, more than the twelve years it took to shoot it. Signature Linklater: the film ends (no spoilers) with a moment about moments, when a dumb-sounding philosophical observation is made that isn’t dumb at all. Boyhood is realism at its best.

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