Boyhood (***1/2): Life doesn’t give you bumpers

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Boyhood – 2014

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Marco Pella

After having endured almost 3 hours of Richard Linklater’s passion project of 12 or so years, it is hard to come to any sort of conclusion. Was it a triumph of the artistic spirit? Is it a wasted opportunity of some kid’s developmental years? Is it genius? Is it just a bunch of scripted stuff that happened to be uttered by a growing boy who, while not quite an actor, certainly spent enough time in front of a camera to get a SAG card before he could drive? There is perhaps a bit of all of this in the span of celluloid time we spend experiencing the development of Ellar Coltrane as Mason Evans, Jr.. There is not enough to call it a classic, but there is definitely something to appreciate.

The plot is simple: Linklater films scenes with actors once a year over 12 years. These actors play parts in a family that is separated by divorce. Mason and his sister, Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) live with their mother, Olivia (Arquette). The biological father (Hawke) is about to come back from a trip to Alaska, working on those boats that people go to when they want to make money and be away for a while. When he gets back, his and the kids’ hope for reconciliation is betrayed by the reality of the incompatibility with Olivia, who is too firmly rooted in reality for that. All the while, Mason Jr. does not complain. He moves forward with his mother and his sister.

This movement brings his mother back to school, where she meets the classic drunkard second husband (Pella). The new blended family gets along pretty well, but for the problems presented by having the booze flow freely into the mouth of one who does not like himself. The kids tolerate this incredibly, all things considered. Accepting of their lack of power, they find true kinship with their new siblings. It is difficult when Olivia breaks the cycle and gets them out. They ask if they’ll see their step-siblings again, but they do not complain when they hear their uncertain answer.

Life with Mason Sr. is more fun but just as uncertain. His reluctance to absorb adulthood results in dabblings with music and roommates to help him afford rent. We can see that he loves them, but he hasn’t got a clue on how to raise them, other than to spout off sayings now and then. Importantly, though, he stays in their lives, receiving no interference from Olivia. It’s far from the perfect situation, but there is a stability there.

The standout of the story is Arquette as Olivia. She is given much grist and has the most to overcome. She is given the unique ability to be as real as a woman can be on camera and she does not waste it. There is no glamour at all, but she does not chew the scenery with the despair of Scarlett O’Hara, either. This is as real as a movie can get and still be entertaining.

Hawke, for his part, does a good job as far as the script allows. His early meanderings strike a chord. Later, when he moves from being a McCain sign stealing Obama supporter to full acceptance of his 2nd wife’s family’s conservative leanings, it seems like a move that would have to take a bit longer than Obama’s first term.

Coltrane’s performance is subdued to the point of being comatose. In some ways, this would seem the luck of the draw, but since the script is written by Linklater and (according to him) the performing team, it would seem there would be more of an emphasis to find creative ways for Mason Jr. to express himself. His face is subtly effective, but it is hard to get to where he lives.

Strangely, once they give Coltrane more to say, he appears to be voicing anything but his own, true feelings. It gives the impression of one trying to voice lines he’s been told to remember. The child is indeed the father of the man, but in this case the man cannot clearly remember what his father experienced. The result throws off the delicate balance to the point where one might wonder how much better the story would have been had the kid not said anything at all.   It’s like the boy doesn’t know himself.

This is likely the impression that we are intended to have, but it’s rare to see the kid that will show this so plainly. Many kids find something to live behind when they have this uncertainty. These are often called phases. The disturbing feeling is that Linklater is telling his actor to express the uncertainty of his feelings whenever he opens his mouth. Kids don’t do this often. As adults, this is one of the things we most remember about those years.

This is Linklater’s vision to explore, though. He has one shot at life and he’s doing what he wants in a big way. He, Hawke and Julie Deply have another set of films (Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) that explore some of the same themes. He is speaking to his artistic truth, even if it doesn’t always match the reality. That is some last shot, though.

Special mention to a song that made it to the movie, but somehow was not nominated for song of the year. Family of the Year’s song, “Hero” is perfectly placed in the film and matches the voice of the protagonist as well as any amount of dialogue could. The Academy may have ignored it because it it 4 years old.  You should not.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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