Sunday, 15 February 2015

Growing Pains


“Boyhood”


A young Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"

Released a year after the last film in his “Before” series, and beginning production a year before the previous film was started, Boyhood’s remarkable trait is one familiar to fans of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Following a boy from the beginning of First Grade until his high school graduation, the film was shot over twelve years, using the same actor in each part throughout the venture. Its working title was 12 Years, until last year when Linklater worried it’d be confused with 12 Years a Slave upon release. But I can’t think of the title that can convey the quiet, unassailable profundity achieved here by Linklater and his team. It entailed casting a seven-year-old in a central role, and various adults and pre-teens around him, hoping they’d be able to carry off each segment with their performance, that they’d be available the same time each year to film together, and that they’d all survive long enough to finish the project. Linklater reportedly asked Ethan Hawke to complete the film if he died. The death of an actor, though, however tragic, would have been written in, as apparently other things were. Again in the tradition of the “Before” series, the script was written over the shooting period, with all the major actors playing a part in the writing; sometimes a scene was finished the night before it was filmed. And it was adapted and developed to everything the slowly maturing Ellar Coltrane was experiencing in his life.

The result of their trust and affecting dedication cannot possibly be any more pleasing, to the filmmakers or to us. The film is a sprawling epic, a technical feat, and an intimate and touching inspection of a parent-child relationship spanning over a decade. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life painted an ethereal and poetic portrait of childhood and family life, extrapolating the flux and reflux in a person’s life to all of humanity, and to the entire cosmos since the beginning of time. Here we are given as personal and profound an artwork which many audience members will find perhaps more engaging and accessible, i.e. without the dinosaurs. No medium other than cinema makes either of these works possible: it unfolds in time, unlike photography and painting, and records external reality, unlike music, in audio-visual form, unlike literature. If a still camera proves that we and our world exist, a film camera proves that we live and breathe and grow.

The film is rather like time-lapse photography of a human being – we see the young Mason (Coltrane) object to his sister Samantha’s (Lorelei Linklater) bedroom rendition of Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did it Again”, line up at midnight to get his copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, campaign in the Obama-McCain presidential race, and complain about his girlfriend constantly updating her Facebook status on her iPhone 5. He puts up with his mother’s (Patricia Arquette) unfortunate series of partners, supports her in her career advances, and speaks to his father (Hawke) about polar bears at seven, video games at twelve, and relations with girls at seventeen.

Each cast member, central or peripheral, does a supreme job at portraying their characters as real people we may meet every day, or have already connected with in our lives. Coltrane in particular is an exciting performer to watch, and takes his dialogue and his action so much further than practically any other child actor would. He gives Mason a stubborn self-awareness that avoids egotism. Lorelei Linklater, too, is admirable in her scenes, and Arquette and Hawke’s performances are triumphs in naturalism, indeed their best work. If there’s anything missing from the film, though, it’s Mason’s peer group; we catch glimpses of him riding his bike with a friend or walking from school with some classmates, and we spend some time with a stepbrother and stepsister, who heartbreakingly disappear halfway through, but these are lives crossed and not followed up on. Linklater is keeping his focus on the view from home.

At 165 minutes, the film lingers on a number of moments, without ever overplaying anything. This is one of those rare films where there isn’t a single stand-out moment, but every scene is a high point. There isn’t much of a plot, by which I mean there isn’t a story arc structured in three acts with an exposition, development and climax and resolution. The film reflects the ebb and flow of a life, except it’s a life between the ages of 6 and 18, with a lot of flow, and not much ebbing. You wait in the first few scenes for the story to get going, until you realise, just as an adolescent boy realises after waiting for a major event or the entrance of a vivid character to mark the take-off point of his life, his life and the story start in the first moments of consciousness, and in the first frame, with Mason lying on the grass, pensively watching the clouds. And it goes on, again as life goes on, with changing haircuts, growth spurts, aging parents, new friends, coming and going relationships, new hobbies and interests, and shifting outlooks. The concerns common to Linklater’s films are present here: the variability of human relationships, the losses and gains in a life, the closeness of joy to sadness, and whether we live and learn, or the living is task enough. It’s a great comfort, and no spoiler, to observe that he emerges intact, self-possessed and well-begun on his life’s passage, and we look forward to musing on what lies beyond this verge where Linklater has decided to end the narrative.

An older Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"

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