Saturday, August 23, 2014

In Theaters: BOYHOOD (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Tamara Jolaine, Zoe Graham, Libby Vallari, Marco Perella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal, Brad Hawkins, Charlie Sexton, Richard Robichaux, Tom McTigue, Jessi Mechler. (R, 166 mins)

There are countless examples of film franchises or TV series where we've seen adults and children age through the years, but nothing quite like what Richard Linklater pulls off with his latest film, BOYHOOD. For 12 years starting in 2002, he had his core cast reconvene in Texas for a few days annually, improvising and shooting short vignettes and then, in 2013, piecing it together in a nearly three-hour narrative feature where the characters age and change over the course of the film. Lars von Trier attempted something like this with the more cumbersomely ambitious DIMENSION 1991-2024, which began shooting in 1991 with a plan to film three minutes a year for 33 years. Von Trier lost one of his stars when 79-year-old Eddie Constantine--who had very little chance of making it to the 2024 completion anyway--died in 1993 and he eventually abandoned the project by 2000 (it now exists as a 27-minute short film). Though BOYHOOD has a structure, Linklater was less concerned with a linear plot and goes for a more slice-of-life portrait of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to 18. Sequences organically flow from one year to the next and it takes a couple of these segues before you get into the film's distinct rhythm. One thing that makes BOYHOOD fascinating is how much we learn just from seeing snapshots of these people over a 12-year period. We miss key events as Linklater focuses on the everyday aspects.  Life is the time in between the milestones, and Linklater captures it in a way few others have. Particularly with the younger actors--Coltrane and Linklater's daughter Lorelei as Mason's older sister Samantha--we don't see what most films would label the "defining moments" of their lives. We hear about Mason's first kiss, but don't see it.  We know he's lost his virginity but it's not shown. The performances are very natural and unaffected, at least until the teen years when kids shed their childlike demeanor and develop affectations and personas. Coltrane's performance remains largely natural throughout as goes from cute kid to sullen and sometimes pretentious teenager, but Linklater's daughter does seem a bit less into it as the years go on: an expressive and enthusiastic scene-stealer in the early going, she grows rather bland and dull as the story goes on and she's given less to do.

Though the film is nominally about Mason, it's really about his entire family: his parents are divorced and mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette in a career-best performance) is struggling as a single breadwinner while dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) disappears for months at a time and doesn't seem to be paying any child support. As much as we see Mason Jr. and Samantha grow and change, so do the parents. Olivia goes to college and goes through a succession of bad relationships, accruing two bad-tempered, drunk husbands while Mason Sr. grows up, gets his shit together, and starts a new family with Tammy (Tamara Jolaine) in an attempt to get it right the second time. Linklater jumps from year to year and we don't see any of these marriages or divorces. Much like life, there are people who are always there, who float in and out of the picture, and who disappear altogether. In an early segment, Olivia moves to Houston with the kids and Mason doesn't get to say goodbye to his best friend, who waves to their passing car from his bicycle. That's the last we see of that kid. Mason and Samantha develop close bonds with stepsiblings Mindy (Jamie Howard) and Randy (Andrew Villarreal) when Olivia marries one of her professors (Marco Perella). When the prof is ultimately revealed to be an abusive drunk--Linklater shows him secretly drinking in one vignette, and openly swilling from a whiskey bottle in the next; that's all we need to see to realize how the situation has deteriorated--Olivia packs up her kids and leaves. "What about Mindy and Randy?" Samantha asks. "I'm not their mother," Olivia replies.  Samantha asks "Will we ever see them again?" Olivia: "I don't know."

Linklater has little interest in a formulaic coming-of-age story. BOYHOOD focuses on the little things and fills in the details that a formulaic film would gloss over or skip past entirely, and that's why it works so well. It also does a marvelous job of incorporating the cultural touchstones of the years, be it Britney Spears (Lorelei Linklater's rendition of "Oops, I Did it Again," in an early segment is priceless), a Harry Potter book release party, or technological signposts like YouTube, texting, and Facebook. BOYHOOD has its sporadic draggy sections and there's instances where some more context might have helped--Mason's relationship with girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) is one example--but again, this is not a story with a Point-A to Point-B line. Like life, it's sometimes confusing and messy but it's in constant motion and always propelling forward. A rare example of a film being carved and structured as it goes along and only coming together as time went on and some semblance of a story took shape, BOYHOOD is a singularly unique experiment where the characters and the performances actually transcend the gimmick. Through the BEFORE trilogy, Hawke and Richard Linklater obviously go way back, but in getting together annually to work on this (there's one segment where Mason Sr's appearance is via a Skype chat with Mason, obviously because Hawke was unable to make it to that year's shoot), you can see, even with the occasional weakness in the younger Linklater's performance, the bond develop between the four main actors over the 12 years of production, making this a rare slice-of-life chronicle that actually feels honest and real.

Ellar Coltrane over the 12 years of BOYHOOD's production

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