Saturday, July 26, 2014

Boyhood? Boyhood!

Richard Linklater is no stranger to experimentation.  He flexed his creative muscles with oddities like 2001's Waking Life and 2006's A Scanner Darkly, which used a custom made rotoscoping program to create a visual style that landed somewhere between animation and live-action.  His real accomplishment is the Before series, a sequence of films, released nine years apart from each other, that depict the complicated relationship between two lovers.  1995's Before Sunrise, a lovely film about strangers meeting and forming an instant and powerful connection, was a great enough movie on its own.  But the true surprise came when Linklater picked up on Jesse and Celine's story nine years later in 2004, with Before Sunset.  Each installment is an examination of relationships, taking a snapshot of the two characters at a certain period in their lives, and 2013's Before Midnight effectively explored the difficulties of maintaining a marriage.  Part of the brilliance of the series is the fact that viewers watched these characters grow and change over the course of 18 years.  It's all about the accumulation -- each movie carries more weight because audiences have mapped the characters' shifting worldviews, and the dulling or reignition of their passions.

His latest film, Boyhood, attempts to accomplish all of that in the span of one 166-minute film.  Shot in pieces over the course of 12 years, it tells the tale of one boy's life from 1st to 12th grade.  Mason (Ellar Coltrane) starts off as a six year old in a small Texas town, living with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister (Lorelei Linklater).  Each year of his young life is portrayed in a few snippets, which depict him as a curious, introspective, well-meaning child.  But the film also deftly sketches him out through signifiers of the era.  Mason loves Dragon Ball Z, he waits in line at midnight on the release day of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and he watches viral videos on Funny or Die.  (To add to that, the passage of time is usually punctuated by a popular song of the given year.)  Anybody who grew up against the backdrop of the 2000s will recognize Mason because he is them.

Yet despite the specificity of its timespan, Boyhood crafts a universal narrative about aging and familial relationships.  The film is able to say so much with its editing, mapping the forward march of time through new haircuts, increased heights, and location changes.  Mason looks on as his mother embarks on a few unsuccessful marriages: one with a college professor whose drinking problem causes him to violently lash out, and later with an Iraq war veteran who disappears offscreen.  Meanwhile, he only gets to see his wayfaring father (Ethan Hawke) on weekends and special occasions.  Everyone -- regardless of the era they grew up in -- can find something relatable in that feeling of being at the mercy of decisions outside of one's control or understanding.

Like with the Before movies, the film's script was a collaborative process with the four leads.  As a result, every voice and perspective feels authentic.  While other films usually struggle with making young characters sound and feel believable, Boyhood manages to accurately capture the speech patterns and thought processes of every stage of Mason's development.  Linklater adapted the script to fit the actual changes in Coltrane's interests over the years, making Mason's progression from a pensive kid to an artistic teen feel less like transformation for the sake of story and more like organic growth.

That growth doesn't just occur in front of the camera, but behind it as well.  By the time filming began in 2002, Linklater had already made impressive films like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise.  But Boyhood is an exercise in watching a filmmaker hone his skills and become a more confident director over the course of nearly three hours.  Because the story doesn't fit a conventional mold, it's difficult to pluck out an arc at first, and those early scenes are a little less tightly composed.  But much like it's hard to find significance when looking at life under a microscope, this movie comes together after pulling back and picking out neat themes and patterns.  It's a collection of moments because life is a collection of moments -- the meaning comes from the way they fit together.

Boyhood is a very overwhelming film.  It hits you with wave after wave of small emotions that build upon each other.  By the time you've watched Mason go off to college, you've seen one boy's entire youth in almost three hours.  Once the credits roll, it's hard not to think about the profound change that you've experienced throughout your own life and wonder where all that time has gone.  The fact that this massive endeavor was carried out to completion would make it worthy of praise alone, but Richard Linklater's ability to concoct a profound, compelling narrative out of an experiment is what makes Boyhood the best film of the year so far.

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