Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

Posted: August 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

The story of the making of “Boyhood” is interesting in and of itself.  Richard Linklater assembled a cast in 2002 to make a film about a boy’s life from the ages of 6 through 18, with the goal of filming a few days every year for 12 years, so you could see the boy, and all of the other characters, age in real time.  Contracts weren’t able to be signed because of some weird law saying you can’t contractually make anyone do anything for more than 7 years.  The risk of people dying or getting sick or dropping out of the project over a 12 year period was huge.  Also, what happens if the child you choose at age 6 can’t act at age 18?  What if the studio decided to pull the plug on the budget halfway through?  The fact that this film exists in finished form is astounding on its own.  That the film is also excellent seems impossible.

The film works on three major levels.  The first is on the appreciation for the difficulty in making it, and in simply noticing how characters/actors age.  It’s not just the boy (Ellar Coltrane, who starts off quiet but ends up with not a little bit of charisma and screen presence as the film progresses) we see age, but his sister (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater), his parents (Patricia Arquette, whose acting vacillates between really good and kind of poor; Ethan Hawke, always invaluable), and every other character in the film that pops in and out of the boy’s life.  While there are film series which allow us to view the age of characters in relation to each other (including Linklater’s own “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” series), seeing it within a single film adds authenticity in a way that make-up or CGI can never replicate. 

The film also works as a time capsule for the early 2000s.  Kids who grew up in this period may one day watch the film in the way my generation watches VH1’s “I love the 80s/90s”.  The soundtrack (which aside from the use of Coldplay’s horrible song “Yellow” is pretty perfect), progression of technology, and references to the Iraq war, Harry Potter, and other cultural issues both firmly plant the film in a time and place, and also show both how much and how little really changes with the progress of time.

Lastly, both most importantly, the film works as a story.  This is the coming-of-age film to end all coming-of-age-films.  While there is drama in the young boy’s lie, and trauma, it is always handled realistically and without the faux pomp and drama of a TV movie.  It also avoids many clichés (no losing virginity scene, we only see one birthday, etc) and seeks profoundness not only in the obvious benchmarks in life, like moving or your first love, but also in stuff that happens day-to-day and may not seem important at the time, like a weekend bowling with your dad.

The film has no main overriding message or profound insight on life.  If anything, it shows that life is the accumulation of well-meaning choices, flawed personalities, and how outside forces and impossible to foresee variables are the main engines which propel all of our lives.  People do what they think is right, either for them or others, at the time, and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, or sometimes it’s a mix.  Life is at the same time both simpler and more complicated than we make it out to be.

While I have reservations at the film’s implicit gender bias: a mother who makes repeated horrible choices in mates despite good intentions (security for herself and her kids) and her successful attempts to better herself with schooling; a father’s girlfriend who is humored for her nutso religious and gun-loving family, and the boy’s first love, who cheats on him.  The film certainly isn’t misogynist, but it certainly treats equally flawed male characters (Hawke’s character starts out as a well-meaning deadbeat dad and turns into the closest thing to father-of-the-year that a father can get without actually living with and raising his kid directly) much better.

It’s also worth pointing out that alcohol plays a very prominent role in the film.  Scenes with the mother’s alcoholic first husband could have easily fallen into cliché, but they never feel anything less than real.  Seeing the passage of time helps, as we can trace the progression of the character from a well-meaning but perhaps ethically suspect man, to someone a bit too harsh with his kids who hides his drinking, to a full on violent and dangerous creep.  Like life, the progression is gradual, the climax is brutal, and the seeds of what has been sown are only visible in hindsight.  Alcohol and the dangers it poses are omnipresent throughout the film, and I couldn’t help but think I’d rather a bad parent be a lazy pothead than a violent drunk.  The film’s not trying to be an argument for pot being safer than booze (marijuana makes a brief appearance in one scene, but otherwise the film is refreshingly free of a drug experimentation scene for a dramatic coming-of-age film), but it could certainly be used as one.

As you watch the film, you will relate to some events and not others.  I moved around a lot as a kid, thankfully all within the same few towns so I never had to change schools or abandon friends, but the moving scenes and the mother forcing her kids to leave belongings behind were tough for me.  For others, scenes with the boy hanging with his friends (in scenes that are perhaps the most realistic depiction of bored young boys hanging out that I’ve seen in fiction film), or working a shit job as a busboy, will bring to mind their own childhood friends or teenaged shit jobs.  You’ll remember the childhood crushes that went nowhere, the friends who meant the world to you but whom you no longer see or hear from, and overheard conversations your elders had that concerned you and stay etched in your mind.  Everyone’s childhood is different, but there are moments of sameness in our differences, and every viewer will find scenes here and there that ring true for their own lives.  I think it was Roger Evert who once said that movies are empathy machines, designed to make you experience other people’s lives and feel with and for them in a way that no other medium will allow.  “Boyhood” is just familiar enough to everyone’s own lives and childhoods (and even parents may see their own selves as parents in the film, mistakes and successes) that when it veers into territory we’re not personally familiar with, we can still feel and understand what it’s like.  I, for one, never want kids and, if my vasectomy worked, will never have kids.  This film made me feel the enormity of how damn HARD it is to be a parent, assuming you are actually trying to be a good one.  You can’t account for variables, and you will never be able to keep yourself from fucking up your kids, at least a little bit, no matter how hard you try.

“Boyhood” is the best film of 2014 so far, and has an excellent shot at remaining the best film of this year.  If you like movies even a little bit, you owe it to yourself to experience it. A.

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