Writer-director Richard Linklater’s latest and unique cinematic achievement is less about a 12-year production and more because of his almost seamless blend of the melodramatic and the quotidian. One doesn’t need a context to appreciate Boyhood, but the film does need a little defense against some younger twitterers whose reactions can be summarized as “What’s the big deal?” When Gravity came out a year ago, a thousand science-fiction-loving bloggers leapt to their keyboards to explain why the film was a “game changer”; Boyhood doesn’t have a constituency that’s quite so…naturally vocal, so this post is here for the next time someone shrugs at the marvels of Boyhood.
First, when have you ever seen a bildungsroman (a.k.a. coming-of-age story) where the plot hinged on nothing but the coming of age? No one does that! There’s always something else – Huck Finn helping Jim down the river, Pip unlocking the secret of his fortune, Narnia to be saved, the Stand By Me kids looking for the body, Pi trying to survive the raft with the tiger – authors never trust you to “only” experience a child’s maturing without some kind of larger artifice. If every other growing-up story is a symphony, Boyhood is like the same song “unplugged” with no more than an acoustic guitar. And suddenly, you’re hearing the beauty of the notes in a way you never before understood.
Ever since Georges Méliès put his fantastical dreams on screen more than a century ago – dramatized by Martin Scorsese in Hugo three years ago – people have been trying to strip film narratives of their artifice. A laudable impulse against grandiosity and “unrealism” has inspired everything from the first documentaries to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to the Italian neo-realists to the anti-“cinema de papa” films of the French New Wave to the “gutsy” movies of the Hollywood Renaissance to the 1980s indie films by people like Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh to the Dogme 95 manifesto. That said, the exact tension between the demands of narrative and the desire for “lifelike” conditions was never expressed better, or funnier, than in Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), in an exchange between “Charlie Kaufman,” played by Nicolas Cage, and screenwriting guru Robert McKee (who is still religiously followed by Pixar and half of Hollywood today), played by Brian Cox:
Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world —
The real world?
The real f—ing world? First of all, you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your f—ing mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every f—ing day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! Every f—ing day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know CRAP about life! And WHY THE F— are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!
The truth is that McKee has a point: the ineffable feeling of the everyday has always taxed the patience of movie audiences. John Cassavetes and Andy Warhol well knew it while doing their 1960s experiments; today’s mumblecore artists know it as well. It’s very, very difficult to get audiences to invest in something with the veracity of a surveillance video for 90 minutes. When a filmmaker tries to produce that feeling of unrehearsed spontaneity, s/he almost always has to resort to certain tricks. Understated lighting and soft-speaking actors can help, as in films like The Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Celebration (1998). But all too often, narrative asserts its priorities, and the final thirds of such films tend to favor melodrama. Rarely, filmmakers can be boldly stylish even as they seek to highlight the everyday-ness of things, as Warhol was, and as Terrence Malick has lately been doing with films like The Tree of Life – not that everyone appreciates his efforts.
Malick’s fellow filmmaking Texan Richard Linklater, in his quarter-century of a career, has proved that he can be as bold and experimental as anyone – if you’re not sure about that, re-watch Waking Life (2001). Roger Ebert once wrote that it’s not what a film’s about but how it’s about what it’s about, and Linklater found a deceptively terrific tone for Boyhood that’s all the more right for how it makes some people go “meh.” The trick is that the melodramatic moments and the “normal” moments feel all of a piece; they complement each other perfectly.
The big moments include one stepfather throwing things at the dinner table, another stepfather stopping Mason as he comes home late, the actual father at the bowling alley learning what his daughter remembers, Mom’s final scene about the shortness of life, Mason’s breakup on the bleacher seats, and Mom grabbing her kids and moving them out of the bad stepfather’s house. The more quotidian moments include video-game-playing, chore-doing, camping, shooting, politics-talking, and walking and biking around small-town Texas. This is a film where time marches on even as it seems like anything could occur. Thanks to Linklater’s clever mise-en-scène, much like the better filmmaking realists, Boyhood’s big moments feel as though they just happened to happen, and the little moments feel like tiny shards from some larger symbolic mosaic. When we arrive at the final half-hour, and Mason’s graduation party, we’re in a sort of giddy state between realism and melodrama that very few films have achieved. As the friends congratulate Mason, as Mom and Dad confer for one of the only times in the film, as Dad confides in Mason that he never liked his beautiful girlfriend, we almost don’t know how to feel – should we expect a big melodramatic culmination? Should we expect this to be as prosaic as pissing on a campfire? It feels like a little bit of both, and that feels almost unprecedented for a film’s final act…almost a brand-new type of imitation of life.
In 2014, we expect breakthroughs in realism to come only from television, perhaps from a show like Orange is the New Black, which is also a virtuosic modern blend of the everyday and the narrative-driven. But the weakest aspect of OITNB was its first-season finale, which felt a little too overwrought – too removed from the tone of the rest of the show (they improved on this considerably for the second-season finale, as I’ve already written). As a movie, Boyhood has to ace the routine and stick the landing all at once, and it basically does. Just to mix my metaphors, yes, you could see a few cracks in the plaster, particularly during Mason and Mom’s final scene, where Linklater shoehorned in framed photos and memories (that we’d known nothing about), to remind us that this has been a 12-year journey – without resorting to flashbacks. (Imagine this film with flashbacks! Entirely destroying the sense of ineffable inevitability.) Mason’s spat with his photography teacher was a little too well-timed for the end of the film’s second act, just when things are meant to be bleakest (as Robert McKee teaches). But a few hard-to-see frayed threads don’t distract from this amazing suit.
Ever since someone said, “Every fiction film is partly a documentary, and every documentary is partly a fiction,” people have tried to split the difference, and if Richard Linklater didn’t quite hybridize the two classic bildungsroman franchises, 7Up and Harry Potter, into 160 elegant minutes, he came as close as anyone ever will. (As a side note, one wonders how well-received a similar movie would have been about an old man becoming 12 years older.) All this in a raw-edged, almost unsentimental film about the sensitive kids of working-class, divorced people, a film as proletarian as it is protean. Boyhood is already the film of a decade, but we’re not in bad shape if it becomes the film of this decade.
Weirdly, the most radical thing about Boyhood may be its title and the fact that it isn’t Childhood (About a Boy was taken). Deep in the red-meat heart of red-state America, even a boy named Mason is growing up painting his nails and piercing his ears, more metrosexual than his grandparents could have imagined. Brit Hume had a point when he stood up for Chris Christie: our culture is relatively feminized, but the Mason character provides compelling evidence that The Kids Are All Right with that. Because Boyhood begins in 2002 and ends in 2014, Mason naturally signifies a sort of sifter that decides what to keep and what to throw away from the previous century. And what a beautiful testament to our country and culture, that despite our politics, divorce rate, and digital overload (Mason loudly rejects the latter), we can still raise Masons and Samanthas. That final bend in the river still leads to America, and “always right now” isn’t as bad as it sometimes seems.
If anything distracts from the achievement of Boyhood – notice that in 1500 words I haven’t yet mentioned this aspect – it’s the chance to see the film’s lead actor growing from age 6 to 18, which critics are fawning over perhaps a bit too much. Not that I’m not one of them: there was something about the very actual aging that warmed a rarely touched zone of the heart, like the first time you see a 30-second time-lapse video of a day in the life of a flower, extending its petals to the sun and then withdrawing. Having said that, I’d like to go out on a limb here and suggest that if Linklater had cast four different actors as Mason and shot the whole thing in one summer – like most filmmakers would have – Boyhood would have been about 85% as good. Going back to my Gravity comparison, 3-D long-take shots were to Gravity what the 12-year production was to Boyhood, the decorative frosting that masked a surprisingly meaty filling. We might express surprise that the initial premise – kids navigating divorced dating mom and absentee dad – was so durable, but we really shouldn’t be surprised that the author of the Before trilogy, given 12 years on his labor of love, was able to conjure up so many effective scenes. As expressed in the final edit, the script was nothing short of magnificent. But oh, oh, the 15% of that production schedule…
Just when we think we’ve seen it all, Boyhood challenges what we think is possible in film, even what we think during films, without ever being formally flashy like Linklater’s Slacker (1991), Waking Life (2001), and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Boyhood is a challenge to every future attempt at feature-length realism, but perhaps its most salient feature is that it feels nothing like a challenge. Instead it feels like a culmination of themes that ran through the Before films, Tape (2001), Dazed and Confused (1993), and even School of Rock (2003). Linklater’s patience, decency, humility, and generosity of spirit come through in every frame. His directorial signature has been to give his characters room to grow, and with Boyhood he found (created) the ideal canvas. Like John Sayles and Mike Leigh, Linklater must hurry up his actors just to stay on-budget, but you never sense that. Instead you feel life as it happens, life as it is: that gossamer-grabbing feeling of how 12 years can feel like 2 hours, that sepia-fading sensation of how one day you turn around and your kid is going to college. Boyhood will someday sit next to other films in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, and there it will reside like a treasured photo album placed next to a group of great books.