What an exasperating piece of filmmaking! 'Boyhood', the magnum opus from film auteur Richard Linklater, is the first film in many months -- maybe years -- to leave me simultaneously in awe and in disappointment. It is a stunning work of filmmaking: a combination of foresight, diligence, love and blind luck as Linklater captures the childhood development of a single young boy from the age of six to eighteen. And this is no documentary: no dry observation of sociological insight with a Morgan Freeman narrative. Rather, it is a scripted drama (dramedy perhaps, because there are many lighthearted moments) which focuses equally on the boy and on the people in his life -- in this case professional actors.
But therein lies my exasperation. The script feels like a compilation of after-school specials. There is a striving mother struggling to raise her two children with a succession of the wrong men while simultaneously developing and doubting her own sense of self. And then there is an absentee dad who drifts in and out of his children's lives, but is given a pass at every step of the way, because he is the funny, endearing 'straight talker'. And, of course, since this is Texas, there are a series of caricatures of class, political and religious extremes -- particularly of the right wing variety. This just feels like a lack of integrity in the development of the script, and a manipulation that is not necessary. This is a concept and a group of actors who don't need a manipulative script to succeed.
I would guess that my own critics will suggest that this script is representative of 'real life' -- that things get complicated along life's way and watching how a developing young man responds to them is the reality of the film. I don't agree. Watching this young man develop, independent of the dramas going on around him, is the core reality of this film and in that it succeeds brilliantly.
The reason that the film succeeds so brilliantly is that Linklater had the foresight -- or fortune or just dumb luck -- to build his film around an extraordinary young man. Ellar Coltrane was a six year old unknown when he was cast as the lead in this twelve-year journey. Since actors -- child or adult -- cannot be signed to contracts of greater than seven years, there was certainly no guarantee that he would stay the course. Perhaps more important is the fact that there was no guarantee that he would prove to be a consistently interesting persona as he grew and matured. Perhaps he would discover baseball or the violin; or would just turn into a brat. But Coltrane is a perfect Mason, able to produce increasing levels of nuance, interest and empathy as he grows and matures. Regardless of the banality of the script, Coltrane invests Mason with a capacity for engaging in the world around him while simultaneously regarding it all with a wary detachment. And this capacity is only developed and deepened as he grows.
The two other leading actors, Mason's parents played by Patricia Arquette and longtime Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke, are equally strong in their portrayals. Again, considering that these are characters who come back to the material once a year for twelve years, having created and delivered many different characters in the meantime, it is exceptional acting. Hawke is particularly good as the initially absentee father who begins to mature and find the capacity for sharing his children's lives, even though he really does not share their existence. And as the film develops and he both settles into middle age and starts over again with a new wife and child, we can experience the wistful loss that he exudes in having missed his opportunity to 'be a man' the first time around, and truly be a parent to Mason and his sister.
Arquette is another story, however -- and perhaps this is the root of my distaste for the script. Here is a woman who has the intelligence, ambition and drive to become a successful college professor while raising two children. And yet, she cannot seem to see the very obvious flaws in her choice of men, all of whom keep her in a state of subjection and relative poverty. Maybe I am becoming a feminist in my old age, but it just doesn't feel right -- or good. I can never quite figure out just why she follows this path -- beyond the fact that she has a bad script to read from.
The unsung hero of the film is Linklater's daughter, Lorelei, who plays Mason's sister Samantha throughout the film. The story goes that she had been bugging her father to be in one of his films, so he called her bluff and cast her in 'Boyhood'. About four years in, she lost interest for a couple of years and was working under 'parental duress'. But then, she reignited and happily finished the film. All of this can be seen in her early development, withdrawal and then clear re-engagement. She is an excellent actress from whom I think we will be seeing more in the future.
So what is the bottom line? It's simple: ignore the script and go see this film. The actors overcome the material in every possible way and become the point of the movie. Eller Coltrane is the embodiment of what it is to progress from childhood to adolescence to early manhood. It is crazy, frightening, painful, joyful, confusing, amazing, amusing and, ultimately, wonderful. Every one of these emotions is found somewhere along the way in Coltrane's beautiful performance. And if Richard Linklater can do this with an unknown young actor, I'll give him a pass on the script. It ultimately doesn't matter anyway. This is a film about people -- not words.