Wistfully down the river of life
BOYHOOD is just one element of Richard Linklater’s outstanding new film It’s also about girlhood, teenhood, adulthood, motherhood, fatherhood, sisterhood, brotherhood … you get the idea. In its understated way it is about the meaning of life, the question to which no one has all the answers, be they nine or 90.
This truth is made explicit in a few typically deft scenes between the boy of the title, Mason Evans Jr (Ellar Coltrane), and his namesake dad, endearingly played by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke. The boy looks to the man for answers, and while he has some, he admits that like everyone else he’s just muddling through.
After seeing this film someone asked me if it was as good as Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life, for my money the masterpiece of recent times. The question made me realise that while the two films are superficially very different (there are no dinosaurs in Boyhood), their concerns are very similar. Both directors have a humane eye and a sympathy for the human race that is not as common as you may expect: witness James Cameron and Avatar.
The unusual development of Boyhood has been well documented. Linklater shot the film in his native Texas in 39 days over 12 years, bringing the cast and crew together for a few days each year. So, the beautiful little six-yearold boy we meet at the start is the same boy graduating from high school at the film’s end. Movie websites are full of trivia about this, such as the fact Coltrane grew 67.5cm and had 72 haircuts in the life of the production.
There have been inevitable comparisons with Michael Apted’s superb Up series, in which he has followed the lives of 14 British schoolchildren since 1964, starting at age seven and revisiting them every seven years ( 56 Up was released in 2012). The two big differences are that Boyhood is a film, not a documentary (though it has autobiographical aspects) and that it is a one-off, running for what seems a measly 165 minutes.
This has the remarkable — and no doubt intended — effect of making us realise just how short life is, especially that part of it when we are kids. You sit in a cinema for a bit under three hours and watch a dozen years of people’s lives and it’s all so ordinary and random and fleeting. My immediate reaction was to rush home and freeze my nine-year-old son, so I could keep him forever at this perfect age. When I told him this he said he was quite looking forward to being a teenager.
When we first meet Mason he is living in a small Texan town with his older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) and their mum Olivia (a wonderful Patricia Arquette). Dad has been absent for 18 months and mum is arguing with her new boyfriend, who finds the kids a burden.
When Mason Sr does turn up, driving a Pontiac muscle car, he’s every inch the cool drop-in dad: handsome, funny, generous — and temporary. But he says he wants to be more involved in his kids’ lives, and he seems to mean it.
Any chance of a reunion is scuttled when Olivia decides to move the family to Houston so she can pursue her studies and a teaching career. There she marries her professor, Bill (Marco Perella), who has a boy and girl of his own. The two families blend and for a while it’s happily Brady Bunch, but cracks soon appear.
Because this film has a dramatic arc, I don’t want to spoil it for viewers by revealing too much about what happens to whom. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of instability and change in the lives of Olivia and her two children, and others in their orbit. Addiction — to booze, God, power, bad relationships — is a subtle undercurrent. Mason Sr, for all his fecklessness, becomes one of the few constants in their lives, even as he remarries and has another child. Mason Jr grows into a decent, caring, intelligent, sensitive boy and teen, which almost needless to say causes him a bit of grief.
The director and his cast nail what it is like to be a child, the powerlessness of it. They also have the language down pat. When six-year-old Mason is chastised by a teacher for staring out the window all day, he corrects her: “Not all day.’’ Perhaps the two most common words spoken in the film are “I guess”. Do you want toast for breakfast? I guess. Did you have a good day at school? I guess. Do you want to go to a party? I guess. But there are no caricatures here, of any age: every character is believable.
Linklater steers all of this with great restraint. The film covers the years 2002 to the present, indicated by background events such as the war in Iraq on the TV news or Roger Clemens pitching for the New York Yankees. There are moments of quiet devastation that are all the more effective for the camera not lingering on them, for the director not yelling: Look what’s happening, isn’t it awful? When Olivia and the children fix up their house before moving out, for example, we watch, without anyone making a fuss, as the children’s height marks on the door jamb are painted over.
This is an intimate, poignant film that makes you feel a little sad. But there are lots of loving and funny moments — such as when Mason and his kids campaign for Barack Obama — and the overall effect is life-affirming.
As he showed in the accomplished Before Sunrise-Sunset-Midnight trilogy starring Hawke and Julie Delphy, Linklater is an intrepid and perceptive searcher for lost time. But Boyhood is his masterpiece to date. There’s a lovely moment when Mason, Olivia and the children are singing a corny song that includes Heraclitus’s famous observation that you can’t step in the same river twice. This beautiful film is all about that river, and just how fast it flows.
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in