Boyhood's biggest selling point is the gimmick everyone's been talking about: the way director Richard Linklater filmed for thirty-nine days across a span of twelve years, tracing the life of one Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltraine), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter), his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), his biological father Mason Sr. (Linklater alter-ego Ethan Hawke). The production faced a few unusual challenges (Linklater's refusal to have the actors sign a contract, as California labor laws (not sure how or why they would apply to a production shot in Texas, financed by a studio based in New York) specify that actors cannot be tied down for more than seven years; Linklater's insistence that in case of his death Hawke should finish the film) and you have to admire the sheer tenacity and patience of a man who has to shape his script and film across over a decade, to fit the mood and appearance of a cast most of whom are still in the process of growing up.
All that said--it's not as if Linklater invented the wheel. Films have traced the lives of men from childhood to young adulthood (David Copperfield and Great Expectations in their countless iterations, anyone?). Francois Truffaut followed alter-ego Antoine Doinel's development (using actor Jean-Pierre Leaud) from volatile gamin to awkward adolescent to feckless young man. People cite Satiyajit Ray's masterful The Apu Trilogy as perhaps the high water mark of the genre--each project featuring roughly similar scope and subject matter, set in a radically different milieu.
Linklater's is more ambitious for cramming it all in a single feature (that's an interesting question: did he intend one movie all along, or did he entertain thoughts of divvying this up into two or three parts?). Truffaut never intended to do more than one; neither did Ray, and it shows--their series are lumpier, their visual style less consistent, the films less a structured series than independent features that happen to include a recurring protagonist. Truffaut's after starting with the searing poem on unruly youth that was The 400 Blows ended up coddling his juvenile, granting Doinel a life insulated from further trauma, the ultimate effect strangely sadder for all that; Ray's are some of the finest examples of Asian neorealism, of the languid unpredictable rhythms of life chiming and resonating with the different characters involved, and are arguably three of the greatest most influential films ever made (it helped Ray I suppose that despite the apparent lack there is a subtly delineated structure, based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's Bengali novels).
Linklater's film isn't Apu but still isn't half bad--you do see the actors grow, their bone structures shift without digital enhancement, their mannerisms and speech patterns become more deliberate over the years. Characters don't drop out then come back performing a different function (I'm thinking of Marie-France Pisier's Colette and her story arc) but basically fade into the background (willfully self-centered Samantha; straitlaced yet empathetic Jim (Brad Hawkins)).
Perhaps the film's most serious misstep is Bill (Marco Perella), Olivia's earlier matrimonial mishap. Bill seems like an excellent catch at first, a college professor with an illustrious career; alcohol takes its toll however and he becomes abusive, and so in a way does the film--where Linklater is generous and nuanced with others he's everything but with Bill, who comes off as an unmitigated bastard and control freak. It's an off-putting moment, the way Olivia's life with Bill sticks out like a sore thumb, a brief grab at the kind of melodrama Linklater studiously tries to avoid for the most part.
Instructive to compare Bill to Jim--yet another of Olivia's mistakes, but a less unambiguous one. Jim seems genuinely affectionate with wife and kids, and when he flashes a little temper at the way Mason disrespects Olivia you actually see his point. Jim seems to want the right things--filial respect, parental authority--but thanks to his military background doesn't seem to quite know how to go about actually earning it without getting in Mason's face. Like Bill he drops out of Mason's life; unlike Bill you actually want to know more about him, know how his uneasy relationship with Mason ultimately works out.
I like Linklater as a writer far more than as a director; if there was any visual tingle to films like Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, it was largely derived from the beyond-gorgeous settings (Austria, Paris). Linklater with this picture doesn't have anything like the heartbreaking ride in a prison van through the nighttime streets of Paris in The 400 Blows, or the simple beauty of a train driving through fields in Pather Pachali; what it does have is a kind of modest charm, what it does do is deliver a serviceable ode (with a few stumbles along the way) to the melancholy vagaries that make up an American adolescent's life, sprinkled here there with the occasional moment of observational truth (my favorite being Olivia's devastating freakout at Mason's ultimate ingratitude--not a big fan of acting setpieces as a rule; this is one of the few exceptions). Best film of the year? More like best in Linklater's career, and one of the better recent efforts to grace arthouse theater screens.
First published in Businessworld, 12.14.14