Boyhood is playing at Cinemapolis on weekdays at 5:15 p.m., 7:10 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and on weekends at 2 p.m., 5:15 p.m., 7:10 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Our review is below. See you at the show!
You may very well see yourself up on the screen while watching Boyhood, that Richard Linklater film you’ve heard so much about. You may project yourself — your experience, your questions, your angst — on not only the film’s protagonist, Mason Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane, who, himself, ages from six to 18 over the course of this 164-minute film), but on the loud sister, the hard-working mother and the goofy-then-grounded father, too.
Or you may not. You may not, in fact, find a lot of common ground between yourself and this white middle-class, divorced family from Houston, Texas. And that’s okay. While there were moments in Boyhood that reflected both sweet and painful moments of my own life, I think — I hope, at least — I would not be calling it an accomplished and provocative work of art if it did not do a bit more. If you want to see yourself on a screen, you can watch home videos. Art should not simply flatter or affirm one’s experience but critique it, unearth what lies latent beneath, “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
That’s Hamlet, and in this day and age — when one of our more seemingly erudite storytellers can bash Shakespeare for not being “relatable” — we stand to reevaluate what we look for in the art we so publicly consume. The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead wrote an invaluable piece about how the public’s increasingly passive relationship with art leads to this kind of knee-jerk aggrandizement or dismissal, but she also took the time to knock Boyhood as “the apotheosis of relatability.”
I would like to not necessarily reject Mead’s charge but to single out a few of the numerous strands that relocate Boyhood from the one-way ‘feels’ dispenser some are content to call it into a nuanced, even formal triumph of cinema.
The most astonishing yet seamless track running through this film is time. You know the deal by now: Linklater filmed the same cast for a few days each year, from 2002 to 2013. It’s overwhelming. No subtitles pop up when a year passes into the next; instead, the passage of time is invisible, like it actually is. Some not-so-discreet signposts cater to millennial nostalgia (Oregon Trail, a midnight Harry Potter book release, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs) or contemporary events, like the lead-in to the Iraq War, which prompts Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) to regale his children with an anti-Bush tirade that sounds banal now but not, unfortunately, then.
Hawke’s single dad overflows with opinions and gleaned philosophies with little attention to subtlety or literary refinement. If you have seen Slacker, Dazed and Confused or any of the Before… movies (where Hawke plays a similar character), you are familiar with Linklater’s fascination with half-baked intellectualism, which would be a half-baked device in of itself if he did not point out his characters’ shortcomings and foreground their closed-circuit environments, where highfalutin thought leads nowhere.
Later in the film, Mason Sr. marries a nice, pious girl who is in many ways the child of her parents, Who bide their time on a ranch and, there, gift Mason Jr. a shotgun and personalized Bible for his birthday. It’s close to a cliché but it is also oh-so-true, for Linklater is not one to condescend. Besides, the real ‘point’ of this scene is to show the weird maturation of Mason Sr., who does not believe his wife’s religious hooey but finds it a humble, stabilizing bedrock for future life, anyway. This is a film that indicts plenty of familiar targets — note the (intentional) awkwardness of an exchange between Mason Jr. and the misogynistic, homophobic loser bros he passes freshmen year with — while admitting our helpless want of pleasure, family and sanity more often than not leads us, over the span of time, to contradictory behavior. That is something Boyhood ‘gets’ that you, or at least I, did not before watching it.
With time comes memory, and what impressed me about Boyhood the more I thought about it was how its tense — as in, its relation to time — dodges grasp. The first two shots are, respectively, of a blue summer sky and Mason Jr. (who I will refer to from now on as just “Mason”) lying on the grass, scrutinizing the clouds. Given that the latter image is the film’s now-iconic poster, I thought going in that we would be staring at Mason’s face for a long span of time. But no: Just a second or two is all we get, before his mother arrives to pick him up and off he goes, his mind on other things, maybe humming the defiantly uncool Coldplay song “Yellow” that opens the film. The same goes with a brief exchange of shots where little Mason regards a dead bird behind his house: his thoughts remain inscrutable, his face blank but not dispassionate.
The sunny, naturalistic cinematography may lead one to think this is all just happening, that Linklater aimed to film more a neatly staged documentary than a fiction film. And while the old “all documentaries are fictions/fictions are documentaries” mantra still applies, especially with such a vivid depiction of aging so front and center, Boyhood takes on an uncanny quality reminiscent of a person’s — Mason? Linklater? — memories. The cuts are often too quick, the soundtrack too spontaneous, the subplots baldly unfinished. Linklater plays hit songs not because the music ‘brings out’ the meaning of a scene but because “Soak Up the Sun” was playing at the time Mason moved and that sugary, sappy song will, whether he likes it or not, remind him always of conflicted feelings and aborted friendships.
When Olivia (Patricia Arquette, so good in the most unshowy of roles) moves Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) in that early scene, Mason looks through the family car’s back window to see his best friend biking after them. Before the friend can raise his hand for a final wave, a wall of hedges blocks him from view and, like that, we do not see him again. This film embeds in its very grammar the sad truth that Mason, like everyone, lives a life warped by the limits of his own perception, where those who he does not literally see cease to exist to him. These figures appear only in flashes, obstructed by choices his mother made (to move, to not notice the friend and slow down the car accordingly) and all the burdens and distractions the future, from that point on, heaped on the child.
The most disturbing subplot introduces an alcoholic stepfather, Bill (Marco Perella). There are scenes here of riveting tension, such as a terrifying dinner where he keeps drinking while Mason, Samantha, Olivia and his children do their best to ignore, and there is also a high-speed, drunken car ride that dents the film’s otherwise sterling commitment to realism and disavowal of melodrama. Still, the distant glimpses of Bill’s behavior build into an authentic, disturbing portrait of addiction and domestic violence. After Mason watches Bill enter a liquor store, the film cuts to Bill hiding vodka in the mudroom cabinet. Only once he enters the kitchen with a plastic cup full of booze do we see longer hair on Mason and added height to Samantha and realize, damn, this has been going on for a year, at least. A later scene featuring the most jarring use of “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” ever committed to film underscores how the innocence of youth is nothing but a construct we cling to so to gloss over peripheral trauma. That trauma stacks up and affects Mason in ways he, not even Linklater, can put into words.
When we leave Mason for good (for now) he rambles, stoned and mumbling, about the nature of life and things to what may be a new flame. He’s starting college and is at pains to define himself. Hey, I’ve been (…am still) there. More questions than answers, but at least we know how to laugh. As much as we can learn from the specific choices Linklater and his incredible actors made, Boyhood ends on a disarmingly open and unfinished note. If that makes it “relatable” and nothing more…I don’t know. It’s downright humble for a film to cover so much, condense time in a never-before-seen way and make it palpable, and then zoom out by the end, look side to side and realize, “Hmm, this still isn’t enough.” Boyhood is so good it’ll make writers of us all.