I love the narrator’s direct, sensuous reaction to the first time he spies Swann’s daughter Gilberte in the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “Suddenly I stood still, unable to move, as happens when we are faced with a vision that appeals not to our eyes only but requires a deeper kind of perception and takes possession of the whole of our being.”
That feeling of exultation and release was my dominant reaction the first time I saw Boyhood, at its Sundance premiere, on a Sunday night, at the Eccles Theater, this past January. From the opening strains of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” to the diaphanous shots of cloud formations to the subtle camera movement tracing the face of a young boy lying on his back and staring into the deep space, I was hooked.
The story is elemental and expansive and infused with a novelistic density. Boyhood is a work of cinema, but it is informed by other impulses and artistic forms, like music, literature, photography. The movie is a free and open work dedicated to the act of seeing and watching. It’s an immersive portrait of a boy we see develop—physically, emotionally, socially—over a twelve year time period. The impact and power is transcendent.
The protagonist, named Mason, is incarnated by a terrific and avid young actor named Ellar Coltrane. (He grew up in Austin, was primarily taught at home and has a pretty bohemian background.) In the movie, a child becomes a young man, defiant, evocative and idiosyncratic. Boyhood atomizes the process, and makes it vivid, tenuous, funny, sad, vulnerable and finally rather heartbreaking.
The movie’s organizing structure is governed around the family, and many of the individual scenes are shaped by the boy’s often complex interplay with his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and his mother (Patricia Arquette). On the margins, his estranged father (Ethan Hawke) is always seemingly hovering.
The movie meditates on time and duration in a way that is virtually unprecedented for a work of fiction. Rather than be obliterated by the form, the movie thrives on it as the anecdotal and observational storytelling achieves a very tangible and lucid shape. Time is both constant and elliptical. The first half is marked by disruption and dissonance.
The natural isolation of childhood gives way to a creeping sense of dread and pain, captured in the anger flashed between his parents or even more frightening, viewed in the violent collapse of his mother’s marriage to a college professor (Marco Perella) who is revealed to be a petty and abusive drunk. Life under the man’s martinet rule is suffocating all right, but it provides one of the movie’s loveliest moments. After the man orders Mason’s long and generous hair scalped to the nub, a self-conscious and humiliated Mason is buoyed when he turns up at school with this severe new style and the prettiest girl in his class sends him a furtive note saying how much she likes it.
In the first half, time is more imperceptible or offscreen, that is detectable by the movie’s subtle use of the diegetic sound, like televised news reports about the war in Iraq, a release midnight release party of the new print edition of the Harry Potter series, or the use of music or changing personal technology. In the second half (the movie runs two hours and forty-six minutes) time is more rapid and acute and self-aware, and the telling physical changes in Mason, the shape of his body, the deepening register of his voice, denote the passage.
Events whir by, and Mason is the fulcrum whose point of view filters the raw and unmediated, his father’s acceptance of social norms with a new wife and young child, his mother’s professional competence as a college professor of psychology marred by her continued pattern of hooking up and marrying the wrong man, and the growing independence and self-reliance of his sister.
Mason is not passive. He is inquisitive and alert. Boyhood crystallizes and makes visible the expressive capabilities of cinema, recording movement, behavior and feeling to render the sublime through the shock of recognition. As his experiences become more diverse, his exposure to earthy, rural and fundamental culture of his father’s new in-laws or the ecstatic possibilities of his first serious girlfriend, the movie makes palpable what is often out of reach, the quotidian, or even ineffable, but it’s often muted, so it’s more realistic and telling.
Linklater’s vaunted humanism opens up rather than narrows the range of voices. The title notwithstanding, Boyhood allows many contrasting points of view to converge. If there’s an anger about the film, it is in realizing that in the twelve year production history, Arquette has been criminally underused in cinema, mostly having to make a living in television. Her big moment late in the film, about the burden and pain and anger of having to submit to assigned social roles is absolutely lacerating and brutally honest. Like her sister, she played the sexualized ingenue because she was beautiful and had a knock out body. She goes past the physical and gets at something direct and unvarnished, and the power and precision is something to see.
Hawke is a polarizing figure, but he does his best work with Linklater. They know each other so well that Linklater never lets the actor get away with one of his cons. The first big scene with his kids, after he has been away in Alaska, Hawke lets loose and he makes vivid the pain and horror of a man who knows he fucked up and wants a chance to make amends. Over time, as he drops his act and tries to play the role of a father, being demanding and instill discipline and responsibility, like giving his kids a talk about sex, Hawke finally underplays his natural cockiness and the result is pretty great.
In preparation for this piece, I went back and looked at the first interview I ever did with Linklater, almost twenty-four years ago, when we talked about his breakthrough second feature, Slacker. “Had I gone to film school, I never would have made a film like Slacker—there would have been too many people telling me why it wouldn’t work,” Linklater told me.
Boyhood is Linklater’s seventeenth narrative feature. Not every one of those works is perfect, but each brims with ideas, honesty, conviction and power. We are all grateful that Linklater took his own route.
Amazingly, in the movie’s twelve year production, Linklater shot the movie in thirty-nine days. The film has one-hundred and forty-three different scenes. He dedicated a significant part of his life to seeing the movie through. He colored the narrative with strands of his own autobiography. He cast his daughter in a lead role. Pretty much every single movement, idea and action rings true, especially emotionally.
The film’s extraordinary achievement is not his input alone; credit obviously is shared with the four superb actors, and the key artistic collaborators, his editor Sandra Adair, and the two cinematographers, Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, production designer Rodney Becker and costume designer Kari Perkins.
The first time I saw the movie I thought the opening hour was uneven, largely because Linklater was working with raw, technically untrained actors; I felt the cumulative power was extraordinary in how the pieces fused together. A follow up viewing was less revelatory but even more convinced of its greatness. Boyhood is not perfect, but outside of a movie or two by Renoir or Ozu, I’m not sure what movie is. The quibbles and flaws are so minor and insignificant in the larger context they barely register. In its rigor, freshness and reach, nothing at the moment even comes close.
Images courtesy of IFC Films.