As time goes by

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards For The New Mex­i­can

Boy­hood, drama, rated R, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 4 chiles The older you get, the more apt you are to have ut­tered the words, “It’s all gone by so fast!” Well, as it turns out, you don’t have to be all that old. For 18-year-old Ma­son, it takes about two and a half hours of screen time to morph from the hazy, lazy sum­mer days of round-cheeked early child­hood to the anx­i­eties and sky’s-the-limit pos­si­bil­i­ties of a stub­bly-jawed young man leav­ing the nest to en­ter col­lege. Richard Lin­klater’s ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment has been to take one boy, a 6-year-old named El­lar Coltrane, and to put all his chips on that boy grow­ing to three times his age with­out any­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pen­ing to him, emo­tion­ally or phys­i­cally, to scut­tle the project. That gam­ble gets mul­ti­plied when you add in the rest of the core cast, a sis­ter played by the direc­tor’s daugh­ter, Lorelei, and par­ents played by vet­eran ac­tors Ethan Hawke and Pa­tri­cia Ar­quette. Lin­klater gath­ered his cast in the sum­mer of 2002 and rolled the dice.

He shot for a few days ev­ery year — 39 days over a dozen of them — writ­ing each year’s screen­play seg­ment based on talks with his cast as well as on his own ex­pe­ri­ences and imag­i­na­tion. In that re­spect the film’s process is not un­like the col­lab­o­ra­tive one that shaped his Be­fore Sun­rise tril­ogy, which fol­lows a cou­ple played by Hawke and Julie Delpy at 10-year in­ter­vals. Lin­klater is a direc­tor who doesn’t mind tak­ing his time. Of course, none of this would be worth the sand in an hour­glass if it were no more than a gim­mick. But Lin­klater pays it off with pa­tience and con­sum­mate artistry. The scenes he strings to­gether are not the dra­matic fire­works of most movie fic­tion but the mo­ments in life that slip by al­most un­no­ticed — the life, as John Len­non’s lyrics had it, that “hap­pens to you while you’re busy mak­ing other plans.”

A lot of those plans are made by Ma­son’s mom, Olivia, beau­ti­fully played by Ar­quette, who takes her time as well, and makes the most of that. It’s a tool few ac­tors get to use; she’s not only play­ing older by the movie’s end, she is older. We see her first as a young Texas mother try­ing to cope with adult­hood and moth­er­hood and mak­ing real-world choices. Some of those choices are good, some not so good, and in that sec­ond col­umn are the men to whom she hitches her wagon. The first of th­ese was the kids’ fa­ther, Ma­son Sr., whom Hawke plays as a cheer­ful, lik­able, slow-ma­tur­ing good-time guy. He’s out of the mar­i­tal pic­ture by the time we pick up the story, but he still does his best to be a hands-on dad when he gets the chance. The next two men in Olivia’s life are more sub­stan­tial in some ways, more dis­as­trous in oth­ers. Some of her bet­ter de­ci­sions in­volve go­ing back to school and shap­ing a ca­reer for her­self in teach­ing. As her hair changes and her body adds a pound or two, she wres­tles with the re­al­i­ties of rais­ing a cou­ple of kids and find­ing her path through a world that doesn’t al­low any do-overs. Hawke changes too, more re­luc­tantly, but pulled by the same in­ex­orable, in­vis­i­ble grav­ity of the pas­sage of time. Clothes change and cars change. He takes the kids to ball games and bowl­ing al­leys, discusses the birds and the bees, and tries his best to be rel­e­vant. He starts a new fam­ily. Life goes on.

There has never been any­thing quite like this movie. A few di­rec­tors have played with the pas­sage of time in film, no­tably Lin­klater him­self in his afore­men­tioned tril­ogy and François Truf­faut in his se­ries that in­tro­duced a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud as An­toine Doinel in The 400 Blows and re­vis­ited him in three fea­tures and a short over a 20-year pe­riod. Michael Apted staked out some of this ground in a doc­u­men­tary se­ries that be­gan in 1964 as a TV movie about a group of Bri­tish 7-year-olds called Seven Up! and that has fol­lowed and filmed the same group ev­ery seven years, most re­cently with 56 Up in 2012. (Apted was a re­searcher on the ini­tial project and has di­rected the se­ries ever since then.) Per­haps an even more perti­nent com­par­i­son is Alexan­der Sokurov’s re­mark­able Rus­sian Ark, an elab­o­rate cos­tumed trip through 300 years of Rus­sian his­tory com­posed in a sin­gle, un­bro­ken 95-minute take, in which the stakes rise to knuckle-bit­ing tension as the film reaches its last stages with the knowl­edge than one mis­step could quash the whole thing.

So, spoiler alert: Ma­son grows up and makes it safely through boy­hood ad­ven­tures and dis­cov­er­ies, as his limbs lengthen, his cheeks hol­low, his mind grows, his heart breaks and mends, and he ar­rives on the brink of young adult­hood at the movie’s end. It’s not just the fact that a dozen real years pass and that Lin­klater holds the whole thing to­gether. It’s the way it hap­pens, the way he tells the story. It’s a life.

In the blink of an eye: El­lar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke

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