Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood


(L-R) Lorelei Linklater, Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane on stage with the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear for Best Director after the closing ceremony
 
















BOYHOOD                A              
USA  (166 mi)  2014  d:  Richard Linklater       Official site
 
This is the worst day of my life.  I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now?  First I get married, have kids, end up with two ex-husbands, go back to school, get my degree, get my masters, send both my kids off to college.  What's next?  My own fucking funeral?       …I just thought it would have been better.

—Olivia (Patricia Arquette), reflecting on the various stages of her life as her teen son is off to college

Arguably Linklater’s greatest film, a different kind of American Dream movie that works as a summation of his entire career in a single film, where the accent is not on big drama, but instead has a meandering spirit and a gentle curiosity, expressing autobiographical roots of having grown up in the state of Texas, where young boys are continually told what they need to do to become a man.  While the film doesn’t have the romantic scope of his Before Trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), where the first two are among the best romantic love stories of the modern era, thriving on the spontaneity of the moment, yet the Trilogy, original as it is, doesn’t have the epic sweep of this film, which actually captures an entire childhood, following the same cast over the course of 12 years as we watch a boy and his family grow up before our eyes.  It’s an extraordinary work, beautifully written, where despite the length, nearly three hours, time flies by, where part of the film’s heartache is watching it fly by all too quickly, which is exactly the feeling parents get as their children grow up and are suddenly off on their own someplace.  The transition from childhood to adulthood is something of a shock to the system for most parents, as in a nanosecond they’re gone.  This film may be viewed by parents or young prospective parents, but it’s largely seen through the eyes of a young boy at various phases in his life, whose seemingly endless journey through childhood feels like a lifetime.  If anything, we don’t get to spend enough time with this kid and his family, because we’re drawn into the shifts and changes and subtle intricacies of his life like few other coming-of-age films, much like Truffaut’s wondrous The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), which remains the director’s most personal, an intensely touching portrait of young adolescence, or Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), a film that similarly investigates the filmmaker’s earliest childhood beginnings, his youngest film in sensibility, originally conceived as a 4-part TV movie that was just over 5-hours in length, just to name two films that may be at the pinnacle of cinema history.  To include this film in their company may seem like overreach to some, but the idea of following the same child through 12-years of real time in their life is quite simply revelatory, something that’s never been done before in a fiction film, as life literally passes before our eyes, where the experience is like no other.                     

Whenever one heaps accolades on a film, it leads to heightened expectations of viewers, where people often feel they don’t live up to those expectations.  In the case of Linklater, all of his films, even his very best, are small films made with modest budgets where the intelligence of the material, attention to detail, and overall artistry stand out, where they have enough commercial appeal to cross over into mainstream audiences, yet are wholeheartedly art films.  Gathering his stable of actors, a relatively small crew, and a $200,000-a-year budget, Linklater directed scenes for a few days in various Texas locations every October from 2002 to 2013, beginning two years prior to Before Sunset (2004) and a year after the first Harry Potter film opened in theaters, somehow directing nine other features while still working on this project, creating a film in time-lapse photography depicting the maturation of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a seven-year old first grader until an eighteen-year old young adult entering his first year of college.  With minimal plot or major dramatic moments, this novelesque film accentuates the importance of even minor secondary characters, becoming the best character study since Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011), winning Best Director at the Berlin Festival, where the viewer is fully invested in the major characters as they become known to us much like fictional characters from a book, as they are so fully developed in our imaginations.  In fact, much of the appeal of the film is how it crosses into literary territory, where it’s as fully realized as a major novel, but condensed into a much shorter time period that elapses in what feels like real time.  The reason for this is Linklater’s writing, which is nothing less than brilliant, writing such naturalistic dialogue that allows the characters to grow and expand while remaining such utterly authentic human beings, where flaws aren’t something to hide from or be ashamed of, but the major dramatic thrust of the film is trying to overcome them, often having as little success as the rest of us in our ordinary lives.  What continually captures our interest is just how honest and unpretentious Mason is, always a bit laid-back, kind of an easygoing and mellow kid with a vivid imagination, where throughout the film adults are continually reminding him what he “should” be doing, where rules are continually explained throughout every stage of his childhood, becoming amusingly absurd after awhile, especially the degree of importance this plays in the mind of the adults, whose lives are less than stellar examples themselves.  

According to Michael Glover Smith, Now Playing: Boyhood | White City Cinema, “Boyhood is the purest, most complete expression of Linklater’s considerable artistry to date — the single masterpiece that he has seemingly been working towards for his entire career.”  As was the case with his Before Trilogy, Linklater has discovered a newfound maturity in his work, where this film is far more ambitious in scope than any other American director working today, rivaling the intensely unique autobiographical family portion of Terrence Malick’s majestic 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life, where this entire film is similarly comprised of connecting pieces of small intimate moments.  Mason’s older sister Samantha, Lorelei Linklater, who is in real life the director’s own daughter, actually only 3-months older than Ellar Coltrane, makes a smashing performance entrance mimicking Britney Spears Britney Spears - Oops!...I Did It Again - YouTube (4:11) as she wakes up her brother with a pillow to the face, greeting the morning with a manic energy designed to annoy the hell out of him, likely mirrored by thousands of other 8-year old girls across America.  It’s easily her best scene in the entire film, shot with an authentic look of home videos (which were all the rage) while exquisitely capturing the year 2002.  The film actually opens on a black screen with the faint sound of guitar strums quickly growing louder and more emphatic, becoming the sumptuously optimistic lyrics from Coldplay’s “Yellow” Coldplay - Yellow - YouTube (4:32), a beautifully chosen anthem to childhood with its promise of such a bright future.

Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,
And everything you do,
Yeah, they were all yellow.

I came along,
I wrote a song for you,
And all the things you do,
And it was called "Yellow.”

While the song plays, young 7-year old Mason is lying in the grass gazing upwards into the sky, lost in thought with that dreamy look of wonder on his face that expresses the curiosity and interest that not only introduces the film, but establishes the tone of his early life as he takes us on his own personal odyssey through time.  After quickly meeting his mother Olivia, Patricia Arquette looking positively luminous in the early scenes, Mason heads off on his bike exploring what there is to do, where kids are spray-painting graffiti on dilapidated cement walls, before returning home later to watch TV or play video games.  Noticeably absent is their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), where the viewer is able to pick up some fragment of a conversation that suggests he’s been off in Alaska somewhere on his own personal adventure, but he’s arriving back in Texas in a souped-up GTO, presents in hand, and enough energy to burn to make up for lost time with the kids.  In a poignant moment afterwards, the two kids run to the bedroom window upstairs overlooking the driveway to see (hopefully) if their Dad will be spending the night, but the flailing arms and body language says it all, as Olivia lays it all into him about his dereliction of responsibility, where he abdicated his role in parenthood long ago, making it quite clear that he has zero points in her eyes.  Even so, despite his boyish ways, a rocker at heart who still relies upon spontaneity and spur-of-the-moment impulse, it’s clear the kids hold an entirely different view of their father, missing him terribly while having lots of fun when he’s around, not wanting him to go anywhere.  So their Dad sticks around for awhile, works out a schedule with their Mom, and sees the kids every other weekend, keeping in contact and being a regular presence in their young developing lives.  Part of the beauty of the film is the ease of dialogue, seemingly effortless after awhile, where it all builds trust with the audience, who begin to connect with these characters, as their lives start to matter.   

The time shifts are so gradual we barely notice, as there are no screen titles indicating time has passed, instead there are subtle differences, like changes in hairstyles, music or cultural references, or there are major changes in their lives that weren’t there before.  The kids have moved to Houston to be close to their grandmother (Libby Vallari), while Olivia has gone back to college to get her Masters, having a fling with one of the professors who ends up her next husband, Marco Perella as Bill.  While he’s initially supportive, and has his own kids about the same age, the kids love the idea of a bigger family as there are more things to do.  Dad still takes them bowling, or to a baseball game in the Houston Astrodome, and even tries a camping trip to Big Bend National Park, all connected by quiet conversations.  But something is not right with Bill, who hides scotch bottles in the laundry room, making repeated trips to the liquor store, becoming an overly authoritarian control freak, eventually railing against the kids, forcing Mason to get a crew cut (“Now you won’t look like a girl!”), where Mom agrees to talk with him afterwards, but next time we see her, she’s seen by Mason lying on the floor through a half-opened garage door in a state of hysteria, claiming she accidentally fell, but she’s having difficulty getting up, as Bill stands over her with less than comforting words, becoming a mean and abusive alcoholic who terrorizes his own family.  This forces Olivia into an exit strategy, with the help of a friend, to quickly get her kids out of there as the man is dangerous.  Perhaps the most devastating moment of the film is once they’ve made it safely away, when her kids ask about Bill’s kids, what about them?  “Are we ever going to see them again?”  Sadly, we don’t, where they simply disappear from view, perhaps having a larger impact in these kid’s unsettled lives than their separated parents, as they were sharing their everyday experiences together, rebuilding a new family, and suddenly they’re gone.  One of the more amusing transitions is more time with the Texas grandparents, who lovingly give Mason his first Holy Bible on his 16th birthday, with the lines spoken by Jesus highlighted in red, while also handing down his first rifle, where guns and religion, not to mention law and order, seem to represent the Texas state of mind, where after the Pledge of Allegiance is recited to the American flag, the schoolchildren turn to face the Texas flag as they recite the Texas Pledge:  “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”  One can almost feel a surge of resistance to authority when Mason Sr. gives his son a mixtape entitled “The Black Album,” compiling songs of all four members of the Beatles after the group split up, suggesting there’s something earthshaking about listening to each member of the Beatles back to back.    

Despite this turn for the worse, life goes on, as they move again when Olivia gets her teaching certificate and becomes a professor at the local Community College offering lectures on the behavior psychology theories of B.F. Skinner and John Bowldy.  If you blink you’ll miss Olivia’s next marriage to Jim (Brad Hawkins), who’s as young as Bill was older, almost lost in the kid’s teenage years where their thoughts lie elsewhere, where Linklater almost cuts him out of the film, once a swaggering presence as a returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, but he loses his footing, attempting to make a stand with Mason one night on the porch after polishing off a six pack or two, demanding respect through intimidation tactics, but he has no authority, where his army uniform has been replaced with a Texas Department of Corrections uniform, eventually disappearing from view and is not missed by anyone, another of a long line of poor choices by Olivia.  Ironically, her initial choice was the right one, as Mason Sr. turns out to be the loving and responsible father she always wanted, even if it comes a decade or so too late, as he cleans up his act, gets married, sells his GTO for a minivan, trades in his musical dreams and his rebellious ways for a tie and a pair of slacks and a stable marriage.  Both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke (in their early 30’s when shooting began) offer superlative performances throughout, where Hawke has been in no fewer than eight Linklater films, where he’s a director that appears to bring out the best in him.  One must acknowledge Linklater’s brilliant work with actors, which includes the casting of non-professionals alongside the marvelously subtle and nuanced performances of his impressive leads.  But the real surprise is the degree of authenticity from Ellar Coltrane as the central character, a moody and dreamy kid who’s often seen as quiet and passive throughout, but he always finds a way to fit in even as he hangs around the outer fringes.  When his Dad gives him a camera for his birthday, he’s never seen without it, as it helps him document the changing world around him.  When he finds his first real girlfriend in high school, Sheena (Zoe Graham), he’s suddenly outwardly talkative, unleashing pent-up feelings held deep within for years, but over time he returns to his usual shy reserve, where she thinks he has a gloomy outlook.  Perhaps the key to the film, much as it is in literature, is experiencing people as they really are, flawed and complicated human beings continually making tough choices and not always succeeding.  “Humanistic, warmly optimistic, and still somehow unsentimental and melancholic, this is a film of such sincerity and honesty, that its collection of small observations accumulate as real wisdom,” writes Adam Cook in the Mubi Notebook.  “Linklater has made a ‘life is beautiful’ movie, but it’s one made of real nuance.  It’s hard not to be convinced by its conviction in the preciousness of passing moments, the gathering of memories, the opening of possibilities.”  One of the most ambitious and rewarding film projects of our time, the film ends much as it begins, with Mason lost within himself gazing out over the horizon at what may as well be his own bright future, his head filled with seemingly insurmountable thoughts, where the feeling conveyed is the joy of being alive, where the eloquent song playing over the finale is “Hero” Family of the Year - Hero (Official Music Video) - YouTube (3:17). 

Let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
I just wanna fight with everyone else

Your masquerade
I don't wanna be a part of your parade
Everyone deserves a chance to
Walk with everyone else

While holding down
A job to keep my girl around
And maybe buy me some new strings
And her a night out on the weekend

And we can whisper things
Secrets from our American dreams
Baby needs some protection
But I'm a kid like everyone else

So let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
I just wanna fight like everyone else

Oooooohh...

So let me go
I don't wanna be your hero
I don't wanna be a big man
I just wanna fight like everyone else

Your masquerade
I don't wanna be a part of your parade
Everyone deserves a chance to
Walk with everyone else

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