Sunday, August 3, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Endless Slideshow

One sentence synopsis:    A boy with divorced parents and an older sister grows up over the course of more than a decade.

Things Havoc liked: I've become fond in these little reviews of trying to sum up the career of a given director in a pithy comment or nickname (several people disagreed with Mallick the Pretentious, but I stand by that one), but that's not always possible, particularly not with Richard Linklater. Linklater's filmography is an eclectic bunch, covering everything from critically acclaimed, excellent films like Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, and Bernie, to... other things... such as SubUrbia, School of Rock, and Fast Food Nation. His biggest claim to fame on the Indie circuit was probably the Before series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight) a trio of widely-spaced romantic comedy/dramas starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but apparently that wasn't ambitious enough for him. Back in 2002 he struck upon the idea of making a film about a boy and his family that would explore the process of growing up using all the same actors for the entire journey. Hiring a group of actors to do just that, he proceeded to film then, off and on, for twelve years. Boyhood is the result.

Let me repeat that for a moment. Twelve years.

Twelve years this movie took to make. I don't mean it was stuck in development hell or sat on someone's shelf or was even mired in the editing process for a decade like Under the Skin (*Shudder*). I mean that someone sat down and drew up a schedule for a twelve-year film shoot and got it approved. I know it wasn't continuous, and I know a lot of the material was made up on the spot, I don't care. Before I can even go anywhere with this review, we all have to sit down for a second and contemplate the immensity that is the task of making a film for twelve goddamn years. I knew that Linklater was insane (the man once stood up at Telluride and proudly declared his fiery opposition to "Bovinity"), but this takes a special sort of insanity to try and make, if only because the central character in this story, a boy named Mason, is played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six years old at the time he was hired, and there was no guarantee that he would grow up to be anything resembling an actor. And yet he did, sort of, helped of course by the fact that Linklater let him write or even ad-lib a lot of his own material, intent on creating a very slice-of-lifeish film. Indeed, I almost feel like criticizing Coltrane's acting, for better or worse, is almost missing the point. In a strange way, I suspect he wasn't acting, or at least not substantially. He did, after all, have the advantage of actually being whatever age he was portraying, with all the excitement, fear, and hormones that each age involved. If the essence of acting is acting like you're not acting (five points to anyone who gets the reference), then Coltrane manages to act like he's not acting very well, whether age 7 or 17.

Of course Linklater doesn't leave Coltrane out by himself. Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei, plays Samantha, Mason's older sister by about two years, turns out to be almost as important a character in the story as Mason himself. Through his eyes we see her grow up, and the interaction between them is about as real as any sibling interaction I've ever seen in a film. An early sequence wherein Samantha starts singing Brittney Spears songs early in the morning purely to annoy Mason, only to burst into artfully-crafted tears when it comes time to get him in trouble with their mother nearly sent me into a flashback (Amy, if you're reading this, don't think I've forgotten your "show tunes" outside my door), and her casual dismissal of her younger sibling resembles behavior I've witnessed time and again (but was obviously far too sensitive a child to have enacted). The rotating panoply of other kids in Mason's life, from his friends to his girlfriends are by and large played to perfection by kids who sound utterly convincing, down to the subtle nuances of cadence when they swear at one another using words they're still not quite comfortable employing yet, or the way in which a teenager can ape adult seriousness while talking about a childish subject. There is some method to Linklater's madness after all, it appears, as casting kids their own age and letting them ad lib their own dialogue, amazingly enough, produced something that could well have been a documentary.

But lest this sound like a student film, there are actually professional actors in this epic project, the foremost of which is probably Ethan Hawke. Hawke is an actor I've never had much use for, particularly earlier in his career where he made a habit of starring in crap like Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Daybreakers, or the 2000 version of Hamlet. That said, he's slowly grown on me now that he's no longer a hot young star, and films like Gattica or Training Day have forced me to re-evaluate my position. And with Boyhood, I have to confess, that Hawke is unexpectedly the best thing around. Playing Mason Sr, the father of Coltrane's Mason Jr, divorced from his son's mother at the beginning of the film, we get to watch his relationship with his son (and daughter) over the course of twelve years with a performance that hints at, rather than forces us to watch the growth of the character itself in that period. Early on his house, at which the kids stay every weekend, is a wreck, a bachelor's flophouse (not that I'd know what those look like...) filled with things thrown in every direction. Slowly, over the course of progression from early adulthood to middle age, Hawke's character nails down his life, becomes more respectable, until in the end his son suggests that if his mother had had more patience with his father, he and his sister might have been spared "a succession of drunk assholes". And yet this is no morality play about the redemption of man. Hawke's character doesn't "find his path" or some similar script absurdity, but simply begins the film as one person, and ends it, twelve years and a lifetime of experiences later, as another. This is the way life moves, how people go from one thing to another, and the temporal displacement of the beginning and end of this film allow us to watch that process with a degree of reality difficult to find anywhere outside of projects this ambitious.

Things Havoc disliked: And yet, even as I describe this film as ambitious, I am left with a desire to qualify that remark...

I understand that the point of this film was to make something real. Not a cheap story composed by some middle-aged author trying to remember what childhood was like, but a portrait of childhood as it actually was, seen through the eyes of a real child in real time. And yet, there's a reason why stories are told by professional storytellers, and that reason is that life only makes sense in summation when it is clarified and reduced, by memory if nothing else, down to salient points that progress from one to the next. Bereft of that, life is a collection of unrelated incidents that have little to do with one another, day to day activities and occurrences, important and otherwise, that simply don't mean much out of context. If that was the point of the film, fair enough, but this is a long movie, nearly three hours, and throughout the entire run of it, I was left basically asking one question: "So what?"

Yes, the achievement of having made this film is fantastic. Yes, the acting is realistic and believable. But what purpose is any of it really put to? Mason grows up. His mother marries and remarries. He changes schools and meets new friends. He is bullied once. He has a girlfriend. He breaks up with said girlfriend. He gets into photography. He goes to college. On the one hand I understand that these are the things that life is comprised of, but on the other hand, this is a three hour film, and if all it has to tell me is that boys go through these things over the course of growing up, then I'm left with the unfortunate question of what the point of it was? Is it really a revelation to all mankind that teenagers don't know what they want to do and think they know everything? That children fight with their siblings and occasionally get into trouble? The film seems to think it is, and gives us so much of this slice-of-life stuff that we never even really get to know who Mason is as a person. That Mason doesn't know either is fine. Nobody does at that age. But he's the central character of a drama that took twelve years to make, and without any sense of narrative thrust to his story, the film comes across like a big-budget version of a home movie compilation, wherein we check in on the kid every year to see what he happens to be up to at that moment. Maybe that's the point or something, I don't know, but the film so steadfastly refuses to say anything about Mason for fear that it might break the "reality" of the situation that I am left with the conclusion that it simply had nothing TO say. This is what Mason did at various points in his childhood. Make of it what you will.

And even that might be understandable if the reality of that situation were uniform, but it's not, and the reason it's not is because of the character of Mason's mother, a psychology professor played by Patricia Arquette. Arquette's career has been the reverse of Hawke's for me, in that I liked her back when she was making things like Lost Highway and Ed Wood, but her recent work such as A Single Woman or A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III has been godawful tripe. Boyhood is hardly in a class with those failures, but it does feature Arquette as a woman who manages to miraculously marry nothing but (to quote Mason from earlier) drunk assholes. Spousal and child abuse happens in the world, I get it, but Arquette seems to have a knack for finding men who start out well (a fellow professor, or a dashing, compassionate soldier back from Iraq), and morph instantaneously into monsters (abusive wife-beater and drunken failure of a man, respectively) as soon as she marries them. I don't know if every stepfather Mason has is made to be a drunk so as to make Ethan Hawke look better by comparison or if there's some other factor at work here, but without any context or insight as to what is driving these people, it seems like nothing more than forced conflict. One moment, literally, these men are fine, and the next they are abusive drunks. This, apparently, is drama.

It's like this, ultimately, for every element of the film. Elements appear and disappear without explanation or purpose, which is fine, except it leads me to ask why they were included at all. Mason is taken to his grandparents' house in rural Texas for a birthday in which he is given a shotgun (Texas). He learns to fire it, and then it is never heard of or mentioned again. Neither is his political activism during the Obama campaign of 2008, his relationship with his stepbrother and sister from his mother's first abusive husband, or any number of other elements of his life that we are painstakingly shown one after the next. For three hours. Without end. Worse yet, the film makes the classic mistake of celebrating itself without earning the celebration. Much attention is given to seminal moments in Mason's life, graduations, birthdays, etc. This is fine, it's a biopic after all. But the film chooses to portray these events not in terms of what they mean to Mason, but in terms of what other people have to say about him. And after about the ninth semi-tearful "fare well on the next stage of your journey" speech that we are subjected to about this kid we only see in glimpses, it occurred to me that this was all time that might have been better spent doing so, rather than announcing to us all that he was amazing while he stood there and watched. The filmmakers, as a result of filming this kid for the better part of a dozen years, must have gotten to know him pretty well. So well, it appears, that they forgot that we didn't.

Final thoughts:   Boyhood is not a bad film. Indeed in some ways it's a fascinating one. The act of using the same cast for more than a decade is unheard of in a feature film, and lends it a quality that previously only long-running television series could achieve, and on the occasions when the filmmakers use this to their advantage, we can get things that are truly special. A particularly memorable supporting character is a Mexican laborer who works with Patricia Arquette at one point installing a drainage system on her house, who she remarks is a smart man who should consider bettering his condition. We see him again years later, having taken her advice and gotten an education and graduate degree, and appears to thank her for the kind words that literally changed his life. Not much is made of this character, and yet through this one anecdote, brought back after the fact, that unnamed character stands out more in my mind than the boy whose childhood we are theoretically here to witness. I understand that life is not always, nor even usually a collection of narrative stories, but films are, and pretending that they are not does not serve anyone's purpose any more than playing random notes on an instrument "because life is eclectic" would serve to represent anything musically. I have many times used the term "A series of events that happen and then are over" to describe a failed film, but in this case I use the term with absolute, literal fidelity. This movie is a series of unconnected events which happen. It was intended to be a series of unconnected events which happen.

Boyhood has generated acclaim from most critics so inflated as to be almost unheard of. Perfect tens, universal approval, unanimous selections by juries at prestigious film festivals. I suspect that what is being praised is the achievement of having made a film this daring, an achievement which is admittedly considerable, even if the result is shockingly unambitious given the scope of the project. I also suspect this has something to do with critics not wishing to be the only plebeian who did not praise the art-house darling, a condition I have suspected before from films as varied as Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Fighter. Amateur as I am, and unconcerned therefor with my reputation as a follower of the herd mentality (aren't I unique?), I am not afraid to buck this trend, as I did in the aforementioned movies.

I do not say that this particular Emperor has no clothes. But dressed in his finest he is not. And if you're going to sit us all down for three full hours, the least you can do is show off your wardrobe.

Final Score:  6/10

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