Snowpiercer.” Now, Richard Linklater’s latest film arrives to make me into a liar.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a masterpiece. Boyhood took twelve years to film, on and off, because Linklater’s vision was to cast a real six year-old boy in the lead and create a narrative film that followed that same child’s development from first grade through high school. (Linklater cast his own eight year-old daughter as the boy’s sister.) The resulting film is one of the god-damnedest things you will ever see.
Obviously one of the key attractions in Boyhood, as in Michael Apted’s British documentary series 7UP, is to watch kids age and mature in front of our eyes, all in the space of three hours. Yet this is not a stunt or gimmick film at all. Linklater spares us the usual Hollywood signifiers of the passage of time (score cues, funny dissolves) and lets the changes happen organically—as in “real life,” we often don’t actually notice things while they’re changing, we only notice the subtle ways they have changed.
The Plot In Brief: Mason (the astounding Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are being raised by single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) returns after a long absence to reestablish contact with his children. Time passes. Jobs change, new people move into and out of the family’s life. Time passes. The children face many of the milestones of growing up: school, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, bullies, friendships, and part-time jobs. Time passes. Along the way, the family moves to various places in Texas for various reasons; time passes. Mason graduates from high school and begins college and an uncertain future.
As a protagonist, young Mason is more acted upon than acting, and I think that is part of Linklater’s point. How many of us at six or twelve or even 18 were able to create our own destinies? Some of the strongest points the movie makes are about the way children are marginalized, even by those with their best interests at heart; Linklater surrounds his protagonist with the nonstop barrage of senseless blather that adults often use in place of real communication. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes early in the movie is when Mason Sr. insists to his children that he does not want to be the stereotypical “weekend Dad”—he encourages his children to really talk to him, and promises to genuinely listen to them. We see the effects of his effort as the kids develop through the course of the film.
For a time, I found young Mason’s passivity unnerving, but as the film progressed, I realized that this was either Linklater’s master plan (to place a small, still person at the center of this swirling vortex of life) or that was simply the young actor’s personality shining through the part. Mason becomes more and more endearing, in a tousled, slacker way, as the film progresses, and I felt assured at the end that this character was going to be alright.
Art is often defined by what the artist chooses to leaves out. At our house, we often joke about how Adam Sandler’s unwatchable Just Go With It wittingly leaves out the climax of the film—instead, one character just sort of describes a bunch of stuff that happens off-camera. In Boyhood, Linklater proves himself to be a master of the ellipses; the deliberate omissions in the film mirror the way people slip in and out of our lives—the way change comes incrementally—the way lived moments become milestones or touchpoints only after the fact, when viewed from the perspective of the moments in between.
Again, this is largely because Linklater leaves out the usual Hollywood signifiers of emotional growth: the “this is how I’m feeling” set of dramatically-worded responses, grand gestures, and orchestral pushes that lead audiences, beat by beat, through the arc of the film. In their absence, we are expected to do most of the heavy lifting and interpret the emotional meaning of what is on the screen. The technique doesn’t merely encourage our emotional investment in the characters, it demands it; we’re rewarded by the depth of feeling the movie creates.
Similarly, the passage of time is handled in a subtle way. I give Linklater so much credit for treating us as observant, intelligent beings. Time clues range from the obvious (the two kids looking older) to smaller, more esoteric, mostly media-driven bits in the background: a snippet of news on the television, a Harry Potter book release party, a Lady Gaga music video glimpsed on a cellphone. It is never as obnoxious as the on-the-nose parade of popular music chart toppers and obvious cinematic time signifiers in more conventional films like Forrest Gump.
Roger Ebert once described the cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” I empathized with every character in Boyhood, even the ostensibly awful ones, because Linklater’s incisive view of life reminds us that we are all just making it up as we go along, and although some of us are more successful than others, no one is particularly good at it at all.
After the screening, my wife joked that she liked the movie a lot more the first time she saw it… when it was called “Jake,” ran for twelve years in real time, and was shown exclusively in our own home. That’s how incessantly and incisively Boyhood returned us to our earlier parenting years. I laughed more appreciatively and cried more during Boyhood than at any other film this year. When it was over I was a wreck, but wouldn’t have traded a minute of it back in return for a less emotionally effecting and honest movie.
This has been one terrific year for the movies. This would have been a terrific year for movies if Boyhood were the only movie released all year.