Wist­fully down the river of life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

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