July 25, 2014

On FILM: Richard Linklater’s school of life

Guest Contributor Jonathan Stevenson / Richard Linklater’s acclaimed movie Boyhood is as good as advertised – a forceful and mesmerizing story about growing up in America. Perhaps not incidentally, the movie also shows how an eventful and emotionally challenging childhood might yield an artist.

The story focuses on Mason, played by the remarkable Ellar Coltrane. At the beginning of Boyhood he’s just a little kid, though more knowing and sardonic than most owing to an excitable and ambitious single mother (a revelatory Patricia Arquette), a restive father (Hawke at his best) who early on surfaces occasionally in a black 1968 GTO as a self-appointed fun guy, and a savvy older sister (exuberant Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Mason’s boyhood is neither privileged nor deprived. His mother’s bad marriages, financial struggles, and itinerancy take their toll, but his father’s evolution into a more responsible parent, his blood family’s enduring love, and a gruffly benevolent photography teacher who recognizes Mason's artistic gifts also give him a leg up. It doesn’t hurt that he develops a kind of introverted, enigmatic sex appeal. By the end of the film, he is enjoying his first day at the University of Texas – thanks to a scholarship he’s won in a photography competition – on an idyllic nature hike with his pleasingly louche roommate and his girlfriend, some choice mushrooms, and her winsome friend. She wants him, and he knows it. Take it from there.

Linklater famously filmed Boyhood over the course of twelve years, using the same principal actors, so that you see them all age on the screen, the children most dramatically. That the director brings off this epic time-lapse as smoothly and seamlessly as he does is a remarkable emotional as well as technical achievement. Because the film reflects the passage of time so authentically, watching it compels us to recall how we have come to be who we are and reminds us that we can't rewind the tape. In Linklater’s hands, this grim reality is hardly existential tragedy. For as films like School of Rock, Bernie, and the three Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke collaborations suggest, he regards the human heart as a force that trumps human foible. The film is a less mystical and less foreboding complement to Terence Malick's Tree of Life. That is not to say that Boyhood is pandering. A nuanced script (no doubt continually readjusted) incorporates finely calibrated measures of tension and bad life. Moreover, the director’s default to our better angels is resolutely implicit, manifested in his central characters’ fitful willingness to accommodate one another. They keep on loving. The movie’s quiet but sustained heart, grounded by the very absence of emotional contrivance, elevates it.

Boyhood also conveys how the general experience of growing up a white middle-class American has changed with current history (e.g., 9/11) and with new developments (e.g., social media). And it presents a balanced and largely affectionate picture of the United States – including, for instance, a kind if sidelong view of softer gun enthusiasts and evangelical Christians. The result is a holistic and unassumingly moving account of what it means to age, and come of age, in our strange and heterogeneous country. Linklater emerges as an individualist and a realist, but also an optimist. We know that life for Mason may never be better than that shining, evanescent moment in the Texas desert. But we’re also hopeful that he is precocious and battle-tested enough to make the best of what follows – that, like Linklater himself and the quintessential artist, he will marshal his native talent and inbred determination to fashion a fine, fraught life of his own.

[Image at top via Panavision.]


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