Boys, Men, Dogs, Eels
For such a quietly observant film, unhurried in pace and grounded in daily affairs, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood makes a lot of threats to end in violence. Drinking and driving, horseplay with flying saw blades, inexpert handling of a shotgun, assault with a blunt but shattering object: this is only a partial list of the potentially lethal activities that are made to coalesce, or sometimes erupt, around the central character, a boy named Mason, as he grows up in present-day Texas. Functionally, the notes of menace are useful for ratcheting up the tension now and then in a story that otherwise flows smoothly along Mason’s course, from city to city, school to school, parent to parent. It occurs to me, though, that a thematic purpose also animates these recurring moments of dreadful anticipation. They remind you, often obliquely but always with a pang, that it’s no sure thing for anyone to reach 18.
Nor was it a sure thing that Linklater would finish Boyhood. Maybe the hints of fatality in his story are also subtle traces, left on the movie’s surface, of an anxiety about the extraordinary way the film was made.
Linklater shot Boyhood intermittently over a twelve-year span, from 2002 through 2013, using a core group of performers whose central member, Ellar Coltrane, started as a 6-year-old and grew up playing Mason. The method made production as precarious as life itself. Money could have dried up at any time, or a key actor dropped out. Even the availability of the materials became doubtful, with the rise of video during these years making it increasingly difficult for Linklater to keep going with 35-millimeter film.
As you watch Boyhood and gradually catch on to its trick of honesty, realizing that there have been no substitutions in the cast—the 12-year-old on-screen is the same kid who was 10 before, and 8—and noticing that the actors playing the parents haven’t been aged with makeup but really are older, you might conclude, as I did, that Boyhood is one of the most patient, modest acts of daredevilry ever achieved on film. The persistence that Linklater maintained behind the camera must have been heroic; but in keeping with the subject matter, he doesn’t make a big deal of it. He just carries you through the story, as naturally and amazingly as an exemplary boy such as Mason reaches manhood.
When I call Mason exemplary, I mean he’s occupied with the activities of a great many American boys of his era. He steeps himself in the Harry Potter world, clicks madly at video games, listens to Coldplay, eats burgers, gets bullied, sometimes chafes under his parents and teachers, and eventually learns to talk to girls. So much for his main business. As for discovering the larger world, he experiences its events as myopically and discontinuously as most kids do: through a father who campaigns for Obama, for instance, and a mother and stepfather who buy a foreclosed house.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like enough to hold you rapt through a very long movie; but then, the exemplary is only half the picture. The other half is the characters’ back-and-forth struggle, by turns deliberate and instinctive, to pull away from the norm or squeeze back in. It’s this continually developing movement, more than any feint toward violence, that generates the deeper, more satisfying tensions in Boyhood.
In Mason’s case, of course, it takes a few years for the idiosyncrasies to show up. He seems at first to be much like any other 6-year-old boy with an arrowhead collection and a drama queen of an older sister (Lorelei Linklater). He’s just a little more full-lipped, perhaps, and more apt to spend the whole day staring out the window. It’s up to the estranged parents to give Boyhood its initial jolts of particularity.
The custodial parent (Patricia Arquette), a bundle of bustling organization and ripe sensual promise, is in her mid-30s when the story begins and has a habit of scattering declarations of need like psychic bread crumbs from a Hansel-less Gretel. Heedless, or perhaps not, that her children overhear them all, she will round on her current boyfriend at one moment, ordering him to get out if he can’t respect her for putting the kids first, and start wailing in frustration the next moment that she’s gone from being a daughter to a mother, with no time in the middle to be herself. Seeking a way out of her spiritual woods, she decides early in the film to return to college and earn a degree; and so she packs everyone in the car and moves to Houston, demonstrating a strength of will that is instructive for the children, combined with an equally characteristic impulsiveness that will keep them off-balance through most of their childhood.
Houston is where the mother remarries, disastrously, for the first time. It’s also where she rejects the advances of the Pied Piper: her dashingly scruffy former husband (Ethan Hawke), a would-be musician, who returns from a period of wandering in Alaska to play catch-up dad. He collects the children in his thrilling muscle car (no seat belts!), fills them with bowling, junk food and the patented Hawke jive-talk, and returns them late to mom, who is too infuriated by his irresponsibility (or just the sight of his face) to abide his shyly suggestive smile. Here, too, are lessons for the watchful Mason: grown-ups can try to correct for their mistakes (even if they’re not very good at it), and they also can have some fun.
Just above the boy’s head, the mother is repeatedly trying and failing to live as a good housewife but gradually succeeding in a modest academic career; the father is repeatedly trying to keep up his tom-cat image but ultimately succeeding (to his self-amused surprise) in becoming a chaste and gainfully employed married man; and all the while, young Mason is developing into—who? Someone just like his parents, of course; and also someone as unforeseeable as the elongation of his childhood moon-face into an adolescent trowel. (The physical changes in Ellar Coltrane are almost a plot development in themselves, perhaps worthy of a spoiler alert.) As Mason grows to occupy more and more of the center of his own movie, he remains as quizzical and easily bruised as when he was small but also develops something stubbornly independent out of his dreaminess—an artistic temperament that dislikes confrontation (he will move 600 miles to avoid an ex-girlfriend) but can hold out against conventional expectations and compromise.
Thanks to the astonishing consistency of Linklater and the cast, and the faultless editing of Sandra Adair (a heroine in her own right), all this happens in Boyhood much as it would in reality, as a continual unfolding, without on-screen titles or chapter breaks. Neither is there anyone to explain what’s going on—at least, not from outside the frame. As in most of Linklater’s films, though, the characters have ideas, which they express in wonderfully alert yet unforced walking-and-talking scenes or sometimes, as when Mason drops in on one of his mother’s lectures, a formal setting. She happens to be teaching John Bowlby’s attachment theory on a day when Mason swings by, and so he hears, in a single moment, both her nutshell version of evolutionary psychology and a covert confession about his own family’s life: we survive through love.
Mason seems ready for love when we leave him. He’s just wandered off from his first day at college, still acting a little feckless but already (due to long experience) blending in with a new set of people, and is watching a sunset side by side with a potential girlfriend. With a wisdom that is either Ellar Coltrane’s, Linklater’s or a blend of the two—such is the seamlessness of the movie—he gazes ahead calmly, as if over the heads of the audience, and speaks the film’s last quasi-explanation of itself. They tell you to seize the moment, he says; but really, the moment seizes us.
Another spoiler? Well, that’s Boyhood. That’s life.
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