Friday, July 25, 2014

Marking Time: Richard Linklater's Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's Boyhood

In the opening scene of Richard Linklater's audaciously conceived memoir, Boyhood, the camera captures the dreamy face of six-year-old Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), lying on the grass and staring up at the scattered clouds, as if they could carry him past the temporal plane of his early childhood. The rest of the picture is, of course, about carrying Mason Jr. (as well as the audience) past our more conventional notions of temporal time. In Boyhood, Richard Linklater traces the early life of a young boy into adolescence, and he accomplished this by periodically shooting the movie over a twelve-year period, thus allowing us to literally follow his life (along with that of his family and friends) from the time he is six until he is eighteen. Being no stranger to the emotional struggles of adolescence (Dazed and Confused), or determining what's permanent and what's fleeting in time's passing (The Before Trilogy, Tape), Linklater also tries to find imaginative ways to dramatically render what's cerebral (as he once demonstrated in Waking Life). The full body of his work indeed gets effortlessly diffused throughout the two hours and forty-six minutes of Boyhood. But for all its daring originality, where Linklater introduces into film narrative a radical new approach to dramatic naturalism, the actual drama of Boyhood gets largely swallowed up by its concept. Boyhood ends up marking time rather than uncorking the ephemera of life that time marks.

Countless film directors have become fascinated with the linearity of time in drama. French filmmaker François Truffaut followed the fictional life of Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) – beginning in 1959 with The 400 Blows, and then we watched him grow up into adulthood in the following Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and finally, Love on the Run (1979). The great Indian director, Satyajit Ray made The Apu Trilogy (1955-59), an astonishing work, that told the story of Apu, a poor Bengali boy, who became educated and grew – through hardship and tragedy –from a tempestuous child into a deeply compassionate and worldly adult. Some directors also take that fascination further by understanding that movies allow us to cheat time in a way that live theatre can't. In his Up documentaries, director Michael Apted successfully chronicled the lives of fourteen British children from different economic backgrounds since 1964, when they were all seven years old, and then filmed them every seven years until 2012, to see if their social standing had in any way predetermined their fate in the future. In The Godfather, Part II, Francis Coppola succeeded in magically recreating, in his sequel to The Godfather, the early years of Don Corleone and his family and associates, where he rose from being a poor immigrant in New York City into a criminal lord. He achieved this using different actors who powerfully evoked the same characters played by others in the previous picture. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), David Fincher convinced us (with some help from digital technology) that Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) could age and experience life backwards. He began childhood as an aged man left orphaned in a nursing home and would ultimately die at 84, as an infant in the arms of the woman he had loved his whole life.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
What these directors did was generate dramatic tension by contrasting the past with the present to arrive at their epiphanies (except perhaps for Ray's Apu Trilogy which didn't juxtapose the past and present, but instead gathered for itself an overwhelming cumulative power moving forward through time). With Boyhood, Linklater documents a series of events that vary in dramatic power and invention, but the picture itself never achieves an overall unity of soul. At times the scenes in Boyhood resemble pebbles being dropped in a pond, but the ripples don't connect to anything ahead of it. Which is why Boyhood suffers from a slight redundancy, an emotional greyness, that soon settles over the picture and makes it a little dull – even if the film's surface is alive and bubbling.

At first, when we're introduced to Mason Jr., we discover that he's from a broken home in a small Texas town. He is being raised by a working-class mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who is struggling to parent two kids, including an eight-year-old girl, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter), the wise ass of the family and one who loves to provoke her brother (at one point waking him with a shrill performance of Britney Spears's "Oops! I Did it Again"). Ultimately, they move to Houston where Olivia tries to find a better job and where they can also be closer to their grandmother. But they end up in closer proximity, as well, to their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who begins to re-enter their lives. The picture follows both parents as they separately try to deal with their growing kids while finding new partners of their own. In the case of Olivia, she fares worse than Mason Sr. After going back to school to get her degree, she marries one of her professors (Marco Perella) who turns out to be a horrifically violent and abusive alcoholic; and then later, she hooks up with an emotionally damaged soldier (Brad Hawkins) from the Iraq/Afghanistan War. Mason Sr. finds a quaint and less demonstrative woman (Tamara Jolaine) from a Christian background to marry and start a new family with. Linklater thankfully never brings facile judgements to his characters which frees the movie from any traces of melodrama. But when he includes scenes of the alcoholic father exploding at the dinner table and clearly abusing his wife and children, we also don't see how those traumatic moments shape the lives of those who escape him (and those who don't). He may spare us the conventions of easy resolutions, but he also deprives us of the residue of dramatic conflict.

If Boyhood fails to precipitate a wholeness as the scenes accumulate, some of the performers do manage to give the picture definition anyway. Patricia Arquette, in a vividly expansive performance, nimbly embroiders a full-bodied personality out of the movie's disparate scenes. Arquette convincingly sketches out a persuasive portrait of a woman who made choices before she knew what choices she wanted to make. Becoming a young mother has clearly choked off the possibilities of her life, but Boyhood shows how she struggles to get those options back. Even if her taste in romantic partners turns out to be suspect, she manages to still be a loving and protective mother with sharp parental instincts, while she struggles through school to later become a university professor. Ethan Hawke brings his characteristic boyish and roguish charm to the part of Mason Sr,, a man who clearly lacks the tools of parenting, without losing the desire to act like one. Mason obviously loves his kids and (in some sense) still remains one himself. But if Boyhood is about the growing pains of Mason Jr., it's even more convincingly about the strides taken by his father to become a better one.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
The key performances by Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater are somewhat more problematic here. Perhaps because Linklater identifies more closely with them (and one of the performers is his daughter), he acquiesces to their temperament. Mason Jr. has bright eyes that dim somewhat as the years go on, perhaps due to the troubled family life, but his personality is so recessive that it works against the film's concept of discovery. (It's a lovely touch though that Mason Jr.'s inquisitive eyes in the opening shot lead to his eventually becoming a photographer.) Mason Jr. may change physically, but he emotionally blurs his way into teenage life. And since the picture doesn't provide much in the way of reflection, only a forward propulsion, his pliable sweetness becomes a form of emotional armouring that keeps him somewhat opaque. That blurring quality is evident especially after Mason Jr. meets Sheena (Zoe Graham), a bright and inquisitive young woman who slowly becomes his soul mate. When they have a falling out suddenly after she has an affair, the picture barely gives us time to take in what got lost between them in the break-up. We don't get to feel the pangs of loss, or of the possibilities lost. At the beginning of the film, Lorelei Linklater has the stronger personality of the two siblings, but even she seems to vaporize as the picture goes on. (It's been said that she wanted out of the project. Perhaps that's why Samantha seems to inexplicably recede over time.)

As film narrative, Boyhood is an ambitious piece of work. But it makes me think more of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) rather than Truffaut's Antoine Doinel pictures, and not just because both films are about young boys growing up in Texas. While Boyhood is definitely less abstract and elliptical than Malick's memoir, both movies are blatant attempts to transcend the more traditional forms of eliciting meaning from memory. In The Tree of Life, though, memories get presented as fleeting and scrambled rather than as linear events already chocked with insight. Without a true grasp of dramatic coherence (which isn't one of Malick's aims or strengths), the pieces don't find a shape that get anchored in clarity. The Tree of Life becomes an inchoate experience, stirring in its various set pieces, but rarely touching the ground the characters walk on. Linklater also consciously sets out to spare Boyhood the familiar. Unlike Malick, though, he achieves this in a more naturalistic manner. Linklater may resist the conventions and clichés of drama by not reducing a character's behaviour to pat observations, but he also doesn't follow through to provide dramatic revelation. Boyhood is supposed to unfold, I think, more like a series of family photographs that we've just happened upon, and where the bits between time remain largely a mystery to us. Indeed, the key question, which is posed at the end of the film, is a philosophical enigma. Do we seize time, or do the moments actually seize us? The picture never really satisfactorily answers that query. Boyhood chronicles with tenderness and consideration the trials of getting older, but it misses some of the nuances that come with growing up.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. A fiction film version of Michael Apted's landmark 7 Up series, writer/director Richard Linklater's Boyhood is one of the best films he has ever made -- a linear, at times surprisingly poetic portrait of a modern American childhood.