Boyhood: Twelve Years of Transformation
Aug 18, 2014 Anchorage Press
Watching the world change before one's eyes is unavoidable, capturing it, is an art. The human preoccupation to record itself has been alive and well for thousands of years, from roughly painted hunting scenes on cave walls to the instant gratification of selfies and two-minute videos inundating social media. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater is an ambitious project executed over a 12-year period during which the crew shot a few days per year. The footage was then collapsed into a movie just under three hours, packaged and delivered to viewers. Boyhood encapsulates a fictitious coming of age story of a boy from age six to eighteen. The movie stars Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the protagonist. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play his parents, and Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) is his sister.
Viewers are privy to the characters' transformations marked by the passage of time and circumstances. Linklater carefully architects Mason's development in plain view to achieve what the Harry Potter series did inadvertently, only without the magic. The passage of time is marked not only by physical changes in the characters but also by cultural changes, from the musical selection to the technological adoption of gadgets that most viewers will recognize and appreciate. Linklater has a gift for details that not only foreshadow the course of events, but also pull the viewer back in just when he or she may be wishing they had brought along something to read.
Capturing fleeting moments in "real" time and settings over a lengthy period makes this project compelling. Unfortunately, the unveiling of this reality is both too long and too short. Packing 12 years into three hours does the character development a disservice. Viewers expecting Mason to have the emotional or intellectual depth of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield will be sorely disappointed. That isn't to say that Coltrane doesn't have depth himself. In a short conversation with the Press, Coltrane mentioned that before shooting, he and Linklater would sit down to chat and develop the character and the direction of the story. The dynamic gives the film a sense of collaboration. For example, Coltrane was able to bring to the character his personal love of photography. The problem with fitting so much into such a short time is that no aspect of Mason, including the photography, is delved into deep enough for the viewer to understand. Mason is portrayed as a quiet kid undergoing adolescence as a moody, taciturn, artistic type. This type of character requires understanding from the inside out, through actions and an internal dialog, which in Boyhood simply does not translate from script to screen without requiring the viewer to project his or her own life experience to fill in the gaps.
In 1959, François Truffaut released The 400 Blows, the first in a series of films that tell the story of Antoine Doinel from a young age until adulthood, from being a kid to being a parent. There are five movies in the series, and Antoine is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud throughout the decades. The 400 Blows was so masterfully done that it helped put French New Wave cinema on the map. The Antoine Doinel character is portrayed with such honesty that his experience transcends the screen to find ties with a variety of viewers. Boyhood, on the other hand, refers to a very specific experience, one of a White, heterosexual, middleclass male-not that there's anything wrong with that, but it may limit the audience. Unlike Antoine Doinel, who, when life pushes him, he pushes back, Mason lets life happen to him. His experience is so mundane that viewers may find themselves wishing for something to happen to Mason directly in order to feel part of the story. Some viewers may recall what it's like to fall in love that very first time at age 15 or 17. They may remember how dramatic, unapologetic and unleashed love can be, but even this is lukewarm for Mason. Mason accepts without question his Father's explanation that the reason his girlfriend left him is because women are always looking to "trade up"-really?
Boyhood excels at observing the world it portrays. Texas can be beautiful when the light is bright and crisp, the landscape rolls and the sun shines. Viewers can imagine warm nights and cooling wind to give respite from the heat. Boyhood also reveals the underlying social dynamics. Specifically, dynamics of a state with a history of self-segregation based on race, economics and infrastructure design that constructs thoroughfares that cut through cities and isolate neighborhoods and people. Boyhood reflects the diversity of Texas on the edges, but not as an integral part of Mason's experience.
As the movie progresses, the interactions between characters solidify and the viewers experience improves. The initial clunkiness of the editing smoothes out and the viewers come to care for the characters. Ethan Hawke plays the role of a nice dad who tries very hard to be present but is consistently a day late and a dollar short. The best performance is without a doubt that of Patricia Arquette as Mason's mother. If there is magic in this film, it comes through her and the development of her character. Arquette is on-point through every scene and is the driving force for the story. It is her character who exhibits the most change and is forced to make hard decisions time and time again.
Linklater's Boyhood is a product of the time. The idea of capturing reality in a fast-forward way, keying in to an individual's physical changes in order to reflect reality is something that currently happens every day. It is a compelling way of telling an individual's story, and it's accessible to everyone. Nineteen-year-old, Hugo Cornellier started taking daily selfies at age 12. He was inspired by a 2006 video on YouTube. Cornellier made a short film, about a minute-and-a-half long, that allows one to see him morph from a kid to a young adult. As he stated, "I knew I was at an important time in my life where my physical appearance would be changing quickly, and I wanted to document that change."
In the case of Boyhood, Linklater does for Mason, what Cornellier and others do for themselves. He documents, records, and snapshots into permanence fleeting moments that vanish quickly into soft memories. In an era when life happens quicker than it did for our cave-dwelling documentarians, "Boyhood" offers an oasis of quietude, one that viewers will only enjoy if they are willing to slow down and leave their watches at home.