Friday, August 15, 2014


The sad fact is that ultimately 99% of movies will ultimately make almost no impressions on the world.  Yeah, somebody put a lot of time and work into a movie such as "Hercules".  But it will never be anything more than a silly movie about a man with huge muscles doing nothing that a million other silly movies about men with muscles have not done before.  Hours of entertainment have passed, leaving you with a lighter wallet, a belly full of popcorn, and absolutely no thoughts or enlightenment of any kind.

When you do have a movie that actually does succeed in expanding your view of your life, the universe, and everything else, it makes all those other movies so much harder to sit through.  So goddamn you, Richard Linklater, for making a friggin' fantastic movie, "Boyhood", which has left me staring down at my own life and measuring every small moment of day.  This means that the moments I'll waste watching the Michael Bay produced "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" reboot are going to be so much harder.  Yeah, it is hard enough to watch a bad movie, but to know there are true works of art playing just in the other auditorium, that is the absolute definition of torture.  Somebody lock up Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman for Crimes Against Humanity.

"Boyhood" is at once both the most critically-lauded movie of 2014 and a hidden gem from 2012.  Richard Linklater created the movie over the course of twelve years, beginning production when his star, Ellar Cotraine (who is currently unknown but will not remain so for long) was six-years-old and over a massive production cycle, finished when the boy had grown to age eighteen.  Many dramas feature coming of age stories, but must simulate the character's growth by switching actors.  Linklater instead waited every few years for Cotraine to reach the age necessary to play the character of Mason Jr. for the movie.  Cotraine grows with his character, and the movie develops along with its star.  It makes for a fascinating experiment in real time filmmaking, creating a movie that travels across time itself to document life itself.

The way I will describe the structure of "Boyhood" will be using sentences that in any other review would be damning statements of laziness and incompetence.  Disregard that logic for a moment please.

"Boyhood" is a movie without a plot.  There are hundreds of scenes in this three-hour movie, but none of them add up to a single problem or event that must be overcome.  The film actively defies obvious narrative devices, such as Mason's mother specifically warning him not to look at his cellphone while driving then scenes later he decides to take out a phone and check out a picture of a baby pig.  Then the scene will end without a car crash, leaving poor Chekhov with an unfired gun.  Mason never has one life affirming moment, the film lacks any climax, or even a proper conclusion.  Characters will appear and disappear from the movie without explanation, or with their roles in Mason's life skipped over.  One of his step-dads simply retreats from the narrative between one of Mason's haircuts.  And for those looking for a powerful message on the meaning of life - or more simply, the meaning of the movie - "Boyhood" actively dodges the question in one of the last scenes.  "What the fuck do I know?" responds Mason's father.

If Norman Rockwell lived into the 21st century, he would paint this image.
On the other hand though, your life does not have a plot either.  A person's life, be it a child or a grown-up, cannot be summed up simply with one villain overcome, or one relationship salvaged, or even just one fantastic trip to outer space to fight aliens.  "Boyhood" even jumps around between major turning points in Mason's life.  We only know Mason Jr. lost his virginity because he tells his moronic eighth grade friends about it*.  His break-up with his high school girlfriend is shown only in their final argument, months after the relationship failed.  To settle on any one moment or one problem would be to diminish the character and the movie.  You cannot define Mason through just one plot, and if your life can be defined through just one problem, your life is a very unbalanced one indeed.

What's more interesting is the way Linklater builds his story through generally smaller moments rather than large ones.  Most of the movie is simply Mason interacting with his family and friends on what seem like relatively unimportant events.  Going camping with his father, trying to watch "Dragon Ball Z" to tune out his mother's argument with her boyfriend**, almost getting bullied in high school by two doofuses, eating nachos at 3 AM with his girlfriend, whining about bowling without bumpers.  "Boyhood" is here to make the observation that your life is those smaller moments, not the plot twists or the heroics, but the simple moments of love, embarrassment, conflict, and confusion.

The film moves so subtly through Mason's life that the only way you can see his growth is through a succession of haircuts, and just as subtly he evolves and blossoms into from an introspective, quiet child into a loving artistic (and probably more than a little pretentious) young man.  Just as slowly we see his big sister (played by Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei), his romantically-unlucky mother (Patricia Arquette), and his manchild father (Ethan Hawke), all develop their personas and their characters.  Life itself is passing in sped-up form.

Imagine if "The Tree of Life" actually starred real characters and actually gave a crap about humanity other than as subjects for photography.  Than you have "Boyhood".

Wow, an iMac G3, one of the prettiest computers ever built.
So many films struggle with depicting the past without becoming cornball parodies or theme park simplifications.  "American Hustle"'s universe obviously had nothing at all to do with the 1970s.  "Boyhood" however is filmed in an eternal present.  We get the tensions of the Iraq War, the hope of the Obama election, and the aimlessness of the Facebook generation all in one movie, all of it more or less reporting the real mise-en-scène of those years from not too terribly long ago. 

Pop culture references in "Boyhood" are not exploitative appeals to nostalgia or cheap methods of establishing place, they are the place.  Mason's sister mocks him with a horrid rendition of a Britney Spears song, a nightmare every boy born between 1987 and 1994 at some point suffered.  A particularly hilarious moment is when the two Masons, father and son, argue over whether there will ever be a new Star Wars Trilogy, and seem clearly certain they could never stage one after "Return of the Jedi".  Well, history had other plans it seems.

Of course, any child of the 1990s, like myself might find themselves freaking out with completely inappropriate joy at seeing a Gameboy Advance SP or a Harry Potter novel.  But there does seem to be something oddly superficial about it all.  I am glad to finally see in "Boyhood" a film about my generation's story, even if unfortunately Linklater can only tell it as a collection of pop culture events between the more universal coming-of-age brushstrokes.  Tragically the only people who will tell the story of the Millennials will be the Millenials themselves.  (And don't look to me, I got movie reviews to write.)

But in terms of universalist life experience, "Boyhood" does fabulously well in establishing the character of Mason Jr.  He begins the movie a relatively minor presence, basically just the eyes we see the events through.  Most of childhood is simply watching your parent's life while learning hard lessons about the world.  Mason's development is alluding briefly here and there in the story.  He goes from a child being oddly depressed about the non-existence of elves to a philosophizing teenaged Richard Linklater character who controls the center of the movie, somewhat unsatisfied with the world around him unless he can capture it through his camera lens.  Your mileage may vary on the final result, since Mason ends the film in his awkward teenage arthouse rebellion years, but he has clearly come a great way and become a more complete.

Oh that is definitely one tragic high school haircut.  Ellar Cotraine will never live that one down.
Thankfully for "Boyhood" and Linklater, the child they picked for the role turned out to be a fairly solid actor for the material required of him.  I still do not know if Ellar Cotraine is a good actor, and I know for a fact Lorelei Linklater is not terribly talented, but they serve their roles for this film well.  If he had grown up to be Kellan Lutz or something, "Boyhood" could have been an unmitigated disaster.  It is impossible to know if this was purely luck or if Linklater actually manipulated this child like a Bene Gesserit trying to build the Kwisatz Haderach.  Either way, good work.

More clearly the parents play absolutely solid roles, to the point I almost wish this movie had been named "Parenthood" rather than "Boyhood".  Ethan Hawke's twelve year work here amounts to one of the best performances of 2014, his scenes are the highlight of the entire film.  His character is a fantastic father, albeit one who only sees his children every other weekend, who drives a Ford GTO, and designs a Beatles Mix Tapes** for his son.  Patricia Arquette's character survives horrible drunkard husbands, single parenthood, and just keeps on going despite everything.  I feel slightly bad for this actress since she went most of this century with this fantastic performance hidden in an editor's closet somewhere.  It is definitely amazing to see the younger versions of these actors, first appear in theaters again, and then age into the actors you recognize more clearly from their direct work. 

Ultimately neither parent has the answers, but they are there for their son the best way they can.  One of Mason Jr.'s most important life lessons in this film is that his parents are just as confused as he is, but they're all making their way through the world together.  What do they have but each other, in the end?

2002 through 2014 has been a huge period of time not just for the actors and the characters, but for the director too.  In all that time Richard Linklater has stepped out of his 90s Indie roots to make a couple of studio comedies ("School of Rock" and "Bad News Bears"), experimented with rotoscope animation for his faithful Phillip K. Dick adaptation, "A Scanner Darkly", finished the second and third parts of his Before trilogy, "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight", and made a black comedy in "Bernie".  He's been a busy man, pushing himself beyond one tone and one style, yet consistently returning to this fantastic dream project.  Despite all that evolution in himself and his craft, "Boyhood" feels like one consistent project.  You cannot tear it apart and think "oh this is 2002 Linklater here, this is 2007 Linklater there", which says something for the masterpiece of editing that has gone into this movie.  Clearly starting up and tearing down film production every few years could not a have been easy, and that the movie was made at all, let alone one of the best movies of 2014 by far, is a miracle.

These people are actors.  None are related in real life.  You may forget this fact during "Boyhood".
I guess if there is any praise I can throw at "Boyhood"'s feet, it is this:  the day after I saw this movie, I thought completely differently about life.  It was a relatively minor day in world of Blue Highwind, just visiting some relatives, swimming at the pool, playing ball in the backyard, finishing a puzzle indoors while watching the Little League World Series, writing this blog post.  Nothing about those moments were high drama, nothing about them are probably even particularly interesting.  But with the right filter, the right camera, you could take these moments domestic interaction, and find deep meaning in it.  I cherished my life - no matter how mundane - more because of "Boyhood".  I reflected on my life (which actually is not that different from Mason Jr.'s) and am happy to have lived it.  This movie is not perfect:  the scripting is uneven, some characters are clearly more interesting than others, the conclusion is too drawn out and too vague****, and for these flaws there is no artistic excuse.  But I shall forgive them for the overall message, which is stirring in its simplicity.

Stupid Hollywood films are methods of avoiding real life.  "Boyhood", however, is not there to distract you from the day to day.  It is there to focus you back on your existence.  Because this is your life, you are alive, and your story is continuing whether you realize it or not.  Everything that has come before has made you into this person, just take a moment back to appreciate that.

* Yeah, Mason Jr. might have been getting laid in eighth grade, but meanwhile virgin fourteen-year-old BH was beating "Super Mario World" on his Nintendo DS.  Who was living their life to the fullest?  Clearly me.

** And that means that Goku and Vegeta have now been in two posts in a row!  Planet Blue has finally reached its Golden Age.

*** The project is known as "The Black Ablum" (not to be confused with Jay-Z or Metallica), a mixture of the solo works of John, Paul, George, and Ringo into one single three-disc Beatles album.  Ethan Hawke actually created the real tracklist for his daughter's birthday, and the concept was included in the film.  The idea being that though all four were fantastic musicians, it was actually the mix of the four talents that made the Beatles the greatest band of all time.  I left the theater desperate to hear this record, and thankfully a truly beautiful Youtuber actually put together a Playlist of the entire album list.  I actually spent the entire time writing this review listening to it, and it isn't bad.  Paul supplies the pop, John supplies the soul, George supplies the spirit, and Ringo... Ringo supplies the Ringo, there's no other way to describe it.

**** Basically the movie just ends at one random moment in Mason Jr.'s life.  The ending is so unsatisfying that I actually hope that two years from now Linklater just gathers up the cast again to keep the movie going.  Why stop now?  "Adulthood" could be in theaters as quickly as 2026, hopefully the year after "Before 7" comes out.

1 comment:

  1. Any appreciation for this film is always joyous to read. I'm really glad you enjoyed it Blue but I would find it hard for anyone not to admire how wonderful it is.