For all the [insert topical reference] movies out there, there’s one that ends up defining the place in question, and Americana flicks have just been served the hat-trick epitome of suburban living. To someone who’s gulped down everything of the suburban variety, from the time-honored like American Beauty through to those of forgettable Chumscrubber–Thumbsucker value, Boyhood will come off as at once a masterpiece, a trail-blazer and an instant cult.
That doesn’t make the narrative much more different than its cookie-cutter forebears, but what it will do, through its much-lauded triumphant and not-readily-redoable accomplishment, is put paid to any more unspectacular indies.
The movie that took twelve years to complete because the writer-director “was trying to write something about childhood and couldn’t pick one moment” (Richard Linklater), the movie whose “melancholia was a perfect match to the melancholy sendoff to another edition of TIFF” (Mihai Chirilov, festival programmer), ended the all-you-can-watch bonanza in Transylvania on a high note. The city’s main square was packed, as the unlikelihood of this movie being shown anywhere in Romania ever again had borne down on movie buffs since day one, finally goading them into the uncomfortable plastic seats on day ten.
It was a crowning moment for the festival, as the running time, one quarter of an hour short of three, both sated the audience and allowed the sneaking realization in that, 200+ small and all kinds of foreign movies, plus a mammoth one later, it was time for a break. There is such a thing as too much – is what I got from Boyhood. Which is not to say Linklater didn’t expertly cut and splice together the 39-day footage he shot, but only that, on the back of a lifelong preoccupation with suburban family flicks, this one feels like more of the same with a gimmick in the tail. Coming on the heels of the Before trilogy finale, this largely scripted affair (some of the dialogues were indeed ironed out one night before each shooting, with the actors weighing in) solidifies Linklater’s top spot among the envelope-pushers in contemporary cinema.
Chronologically time-stamped over the course of 12 years, Boyhood endeavors to capture a boy’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood and teen years as they happen. While the relatively unknown face that goes through all the age-specific changes on camera lends the movie a poignant, documentary feel, the stars Linklater brought on board to play Mason’s divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) redress the balance. And it’s no less riveting to train your eyes on their evolution over this period, to think how, regardless of what projects they might have been involved in at such and such time, they still made it to the set of Boyhood. Not that getting into the zone would’ve been as challenging as all that: the broken family story, where the thousand pound gorilla is a mom’s struggle to stand on her own two feet, is neither new nor could it have been particularly hard to play for someone like Patricia “Allison Dubois” Arquette.
For my money, she’s the focal point here, though. Watching her go from pillar to post – read, from one rotten husband to another – in an effort to provide for her two kids is equal parts timelessly relatable, face palm-inducing and emotionally taxing. To watch it through Mason’s eyes is what truly packs a punch here – and it’s this choice of POV that I suspect landed Linklater such a resounding victory. We’re front and center not only to this kid’s cornerstone moments, but also to his defining and character-building influences as they happen, without him even catching on at the time, all marking and shaping him into the young adult whom we’re understandably pained to leave when the credits start rolling. His early childhood years, filled with the everyday experiences (like changing schools or getting bullied) and also the extraordinary ones (his parents fighting, his mother whisking him away from an abusive husband), aren’t consistently engaging, but they are so crucial to his coming of age that tacking them on, year after year, feels necessary. The person Mason is growing into before our eyes couldn’t have come together without them and, so, the narrative can’t but shine an archival light on every one of its many joints.
Having said that, the arch itself isn’t disjointed per se, and that’s thanks to the director’s process of editing everything again and again, after each slice of Mason’s life was added to the whole. The main corollary of that painstaking approach is the well fleshed-out characters and, at the end of the day, a genuine family we, like loyal flies migrating across the many walls they inhabit, feel close to. It’s a– yes intrusive – treat to watch Hawke go from frustrated artist who’s always trying to cram as many heart-to-heart confabs with his kids on that once-in-a-blue-moon visit, to the responsible, off-the-smoke-wagon parent who spends quality time with them every other week. He has the struggling musician/political activist shtick down pat and, somehow, we believe him when he turns his act around, becoming the born-again head of a new household. And if we empathize with both him and the family as a whole, it’s precisely because the turmoil they face and, eventually, rise above, is, in this day and age, familiar to us all.
It’s too bad then, that the tooth-and-nail fight for getting it together is skated over in favor of Mason’s changing fringe line. It bears mentioning, however, that the one-of-a-kindness of this 12-year window stands out in a big, splashy way: from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga, from video games to Wii, from the Harry Potter mania to the Twilight craze (and finally! to Tropic Thunder), the time span covers it all. This gives us our bearings along the timeline and adds a tinge of nostalgia to the mix. Pop culture time capsule aside, there are plenty of yawn-worthy clichés scattered throughout this flick that render the story innocuous. We’re more likely to remember it as a crash course in parenting by “winging it” – and I’ve recommended it as such – than, say, the account of one kid’s teenage tribulations. It’s not often that we see parents taking their offspring seriously, let alone resisting the urge to talk down to them and worrying early on about their political views: the dad singles out “Kerry, not Bush” to his then pint-sized kids, then later on takes them along on a house-to-house canvas, drumbeating Obama by putting up campaign signs or uprooting the competitor’s.
Though it might come off as in your face, the political side of Boyhood is seamlessly blended into the family antics, evincing to us non-Americans how the Iraq war, for instance, impinged on ordinary folks’ lives, or how the bible-thumping, gun-loving face of the States isn’t as trenchant as we’d think. Societal woes too are outlined against this family portrait – Mason’s emo phase, the compulsory wrist-cutter class mate, peer pressure and bullying, drinking and smoking pot, pretty much anything teenage-related you can think of makes an ad-hoc appearance. But the flip side to this barrage of information is that it dilutes the core drama. That’s why Ellar’s acting chops absolutely needed to be age-proof for this to work. It was a gamble on Linklater’s part and it paid off, with his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, picking up the funny slack as Mason’s sister, when the lead’s younger self skews a bit, well, childish.
In a recent Guardian article about cult films, Joe Queenan points out that we often “we impute virtues to them that may not exist” or we ignore that “the cult may not extend very far beyond [our] living room.” I, for one, hope that the overwhelmingly awed reception of keeps its beacon of novelty from dwindling for years to come. If only because ittops off a genre with a bang, which also implies that it sounds a death knell that can’t be un-rung, and the first filmmaker who tries to will be facing an impossible comparison. Therein, in how they handle the challenge, lies evolution.