Thursday, January 8, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014--#4: "Boyhood" Transcends Cinema

This is the eighth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #5 pick, #6 pick, #7 pick, #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

Mason Evans Jr. through the years

There are a lot of flaws with the movie Boyhood. The writing is typically unmemorable, and despite some noteworthy performances by the lead actors, the acting for some minor roles is downright bad. The film is aimless-- it doesn't seem to have a story and at times gets wrapped up in its own cleverness. It is fairly unremarkable on a scene by scene level. If you were to watch a single scene out of context, you probably would not be impressed or intrigued to want to watch the film.

But none of that matters, because Boyhood is one of the most powerful things I've ever witnessed. And it's a rare case where the process of making the film actually factors into the experience of watching the film. It's that rare film that will actually leave one awestruck upon exiting the theater. I felt exhausted after watching it-- so complete and fulfilling is the journey that you embark upon with the cast and crew of this film.

For those who somehow are reading this and don't know about Boyhood, the film follows Mason Evans Jr., a young boy as he grows from age six to age eighteen, and examines how he changes over the course of his childhood. Writer and director Richard Linklater decided to tell this story by actually filming over the course of twelve years, with the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) playing young Mason, and the same cast playing the recurring characters in his lives. Every so often over twelve years, the cast and crew would meet up and film a couple of scenes. And while things similar to this have been done before (we watch the same cast grow up during the Harry Potter series of films, and there's the acclaimed "Up Series" of documentary films by Michael Apted) such a project has never before been attempted in the making of a solitary film. The film's few critics (and I'll get to them in a minute) have often been quick to refer to this as a gimmick...but what a gimmick it is. It really is incredible to watch as not only Mason grows up, but as Ellar Coltrane grows up as well, maturing as an actor and an individual. It's obviously necessary in most films to have a different actors play characters in their youth and adulthood, but I nonetheless often find it distracting, and the characters feel separate from the younger selves that we see in flashbacks. Boyhood finds pretty much the only way to circumvent this, and the effect is even more striking than I would have thought. Watching Mason grow up, you can't help but feel like you know him intimately. But while the changes in Mason have been much touted, I was struck by how noticeable the aging process was with the adult actors too. Mason's parents-- played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke--show physical changes over the twelve year process just as Mason does. When the Evans family gathers to take a family photo after Mason's high school graduation, I remember tearing up, realizing how far all of these characters had come since the film's beginning.

On top of the power of watching the actors age with their characters, one has to be aware of how difficult this movie must have been to make. On top of the patience required on behalf of all involved, just consider the way this script must have been pieced together. So much changes in twelve years. A story arc that might have seemed strong at the time might seem inappropriate or cliched or commonplace down the line. Or, as the film went on, perhaps Linklater would want to change the ending, but didn't have the luxury of being able to go back for reshoots should he want to change something about a previous scene. So the screenplay had to be written basically in the moment, leaving the film open-ended. But, rather than feeling aimless and lacking in direction, Linklater embraced this and allowed it to set the tone--it felt freeing, it felt calm, and it felt exciting. Since the filmmakers were not sure what was going to happen in the future scenes, neither did we.

And that alone is praiseworthy. As people, we desire control. We want to know that we have a handle on our own circumstances. And in any artistic project I think this is particularly true. Linklater was able to put his ego aside and simply be patient. He was able to trust those working with him to be able to make it all make sense. And, it should be noted, the cast did this as well. Arquette, Coltrane, and Hawke (and Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter who plays Mason's sister in the film) had to agree to play these roles without a complete script in front of them. That's huge. They had no idea where these characters would go, or what would happen. But they trusted in Richard Linklater to serve them well and find a path for their characters that made sense. So, there was a lot of trust. It was an ego-free project, and one about which all involved had to be incredibly passionate and that shines through in the filmmaking.

Mason in one of the more fun-filled moments of his childhood.

And the filmmaking itself similarly shows a lot of restraint and discretion. For example, as the years pass on by, Linklater draws attention to the time period artfully; a lesser filmmaker would have most likely put up a title card stating the arrival of a new year, but Linklater trusts that we will notice the changes in Mason on our own (the most obvious and humorous is probably the year that his voice drops). He also provides hints just using things from the time. The image of kids lining up to receive the latest Harry Potter book at midnight certainly brought back memories, and was very much a phenomenon that has not quite been matched to this date, allowing the film to achieve the same nostalgic experience of opening up a time capsule. Linklater also uses soundtrack beautifully-- with signature songs from the year nicely underscoring establishing scenes (If hearing Soulja Boy doesn't immediately bring you back to 2007 then nothing will). We are never confused, and never lost. Since Linklater could not know what would happen in his film's future, he made sure that the present was very well-defined-- a series of perfectly composed snapshots.

Just as the plot had to be left open-ended, so too did the characters, ESPECIALLY Mason. At the start of the film, there was no indication of the adult that Ellar Coltrane would turn into. Looking at the boy lying winsomely on the grass, he could have grown up to be a nerd, or a jock, or anything in between. So, unlike in other films where the ending is foreshadowed, Boyhood really becomes about the journey-- the film meanders towards an ending that they couldn't have anticipated (which makes the moments of callbacks even more impressive-- like an implied romantic relationship between Mason and a girl named Nicole, who is most likely the same Nicole who passed him a kind note in school when he got a forced haircut years earlier). But, Ellar grew up to have a sort of cool and alternative look (all of his piercings are Ellar's, by the way, and were used to inform the character. To allow for this sort of openness in regards to the character, they had to leave Mason mostly vague. Which means that he might be the single best and most realistic interpretation of an introvert ever put to film. His indecisiveness becomes a theme throughout. From one of the very first scenes, it is mentioned that Mason doesn't really know how to apply himself, and throughout, people ask him what he wants to do and he replies that he doesn't know. This trait of indecisiveness is probably the only thing about Mason that remains consistent at every single age. The probably unintended result here is that Mason becomes, in my opinion, the best and least caricaturey portrayal of an introvert ever put on film. He, of course, never figures out exactly where he is headed, and that's because he doesn't have to. So often, kids are told to figure out their plan (the classic "What do you want to be when you grow up," question) and seeing Mason coping with simply figuring things out is a refreshing take.

Mason, in a moment of introspection.

Boyhood, like a lot of coming of age movies, is framed as a series of moments, but what's fascinating is that the typical milestones are all missing. We don't see Mason's first kiss. He's just...suddenly kissing people. We don't see him lose his virginity, we just at one point find out he's sexually active. His breakup with his first girlfriend occurs offscreen and is only casually mentioned. In one scene, he's given an inspiring speech by his photography teacher, who clearly believes in Mason. In another film, this guy would be a major character, but we never see him before or since. Same with one of Mason's best friends from high school--one who goes with Mason to his graduation party-- but who we only saw in one scene before and never see afterwards. Rather than focusing on what we typically think are "important" moments, Boyhood concerns itself only with quieter moments of Mason's life. The effect is that it feels more real. Nothing feels manufactured. You simply feel like a fly on a wall--getting a peak at Mason's day to day life as opposed to what one would pick as the "highlights." The characters become more defined and more personal--they feel as if they really exist outside the world of the film. While writing this, in fact, I keep having to remind myself that the actor's name is Ellar and not Mason

And that is due, in large part, to Coltrane's performance. He's great, and so is Lorelei Linklater (although she, believably, fades out of the film a bit as Mason grows older and his sister becomes a less active presence in his life). Both are yet another example of how child actors can turn in sophisticated performances. Despite Boyhood's critical acclaim and awards clout (Oscar nominations haven't been announced yet, but it seems to be the absolute frontrunner to win Best Picture) Coltrane is not getting any Best Actor buzz. And, to be fair, it's a very competitive category, and his quieter portrayal does not stand out as much as some of the larger characters who will most likely make up that category this year. But, for me, I almost feel like Coltrane should be nominated--or at least be a part of the conversation-- just on principal--how could Boyhood be the best picture of the year without its boy? Without the subject who is so integral to every frame and every shot?

Mason at the end of his boyhood. Hey, that's the name of the movie!

But the cast members who are getting nominations are Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his parents. Of the two, Arquette has a most definite shot of winning the Oscar this year, and she has already picked up multiple awards for her performance as Olivia Evans. Hawke, meanwhile, certainly got acclaim for his work as Mason Evans Sr., but seems to be playing second fiddle to J.K. Simmons in Whiplash when it comes to actual wins. But, to me, this seems incredibly backwards. I have to admit that I found Arquette's performance...fairly weak. Arquette is one of those actors who gives the same performance in every role she takes on, and I actually do not mean that as a criticism-- a lot of actors could be accused of this, but that isn't always a bad thing. Consider Jack Nicholson or Christopher Walken, who has certain trademark styles of acting, but who can nonetheless make a role their own. But, with Arquette, he go-to style seems to be to recite everything with a certain drowsy quality.  It's certainly very natural and fits with the style of the film, and moments where she breaks her more emotionless and soft delivery stand out (I wonder if she'd be such an awards powerhouse if not for one scene where she says goodbye to Mason as he goes off to college). But, in general, I wanted a lot more to her instead of what we've seen from Arquette time after time. 

Patricia Arquette, seen as the favorite to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Hawke, meanwhile, excels in the role for me, and finds nuance in his character that Arquette simply didn't. The primary challenge in tackling a role in a film that is made over twelve years is to keep your performance consistent. We have to believe that this character is the same person and, across the board for all cast members, this goal is accomplished (even by Arquette-- who I really am sure is a lovely person and who I should clarify does not do bad work here by any means, just not Oscar-worthy work in my book). But the secondary challenge in tackling a role in such a film is to find growth in that character--in no film do you want a major character to feel like the same person as when the film started. And this is where Hawke's performance becomes brilliant. At the beginning of the film, Mason Sr. is a kind of a screw-up. Much like his son, he has a lot of growing up to do over the course of the film, and by the end has become a much more straight-and-narrow kind of guy. His journey feels almost as complete as Mason's--we see his dreams get dashed, we then see new dreams form, and new dreams be achieved. And all the while, Hawke makes this character feel like the same person. He matures at a believable pace, but even though he has grown another year in each scene, we can still see the progression of Mason Sr. Considering how long of a break there was between the shooting of each scene, this is no small task. And that, to me, is what puts Hawke over the edge here (and, honestly, I might have liked Arquette's performance more if Hawke had not overshadowed her). For me, the Olivia that we see at the end of the film feels pretty similar to the Olivia we saw at the beginning, even though she has been through quite a lot of hardship in that time. But the Mason Sr. is a totally new person, while still maintaining the qualities he possessed when we first met him. It's absolutely brilliant, and is another in a long line of credits that cement Hawke's place as one of the most underrated actors of our time. Seriously, he and Sam Rockwell should play brothers sometime. It'll be the best movie that nobody sees.

Ethan Hawke is brilliant as Mason's father, seen here sharing a family moment with his son.

But, having gone on about what I like about the film, I'd like to now address what others did not like about the film. When a film gets as warm a reception as Boyhood did, there is bound to be backlash. It started with an article by Kenneth Turan which began making the rounds on social media. I was actually eager to read it--I actually love reading criticism of movies that I enjoy, as it speaks to the wonderful subjective nature of art, and I find that hearing a critical perspective often enhances my own love for the film. But I was disappointed to find that it ended up being a ludicrous article that isn't even a real review--he hardly talks about the film at all and makes the article all about himself. The only criticism he brings up is that he found the gimmick of filming over twelve years to be a watered-down version of the aforementioned "Up Series" of documentaries (where a group of people--all well into adulthood now-- have been interviewed every seven years, starting when they were seven years old). I can only say that I disagree wholeheartedly. To say that the gimmick of watching people age was done better in the Up Series shows a profound misunderstanding of both works. They accomplish something different. The documentary series is about an extended period of time, but Boyhood specifically examines the effect in a consolidated period of time, and the time lapse in a single feature film brings out a powerful effect that the Up Series does not attempt to achieve. Both projects are worthwhile for their own reasons, and both approaches have distinct pros and cons.

A more serious accusation came up in articles questioning the film's use of gender and race. One article raises the question of why race doesn't play any factor in Boyhood. I see this point, absolutely, and the article is worth reading and assessing for yourself. As a white guy with a lot of privilege, I cannot, should not, and would not attempt to address the points in this article from a racial standpoint. But, I will address them from a perspective where I feel I have considerably more clout: as a film buff. I'd ask one to consider how this film was made. Consider how far race relations have come in the past twelve years (and how different we can imagine they will be twelve years from now). Social issues are always going to be changing, and so I question how realistically this film could have tackled such a topic. Especially considering that the few times it does attempt to talk about race are not handled the best. When Mason comes across a bigoted Republican who refuses to vote for Obama, the whole thing feels clunky and shoehorned in. But, far worse, is the subplot where Mason's mother acts as a white savior for a Hispanic man when she inspires him to find his full potential. It's PAINFULLY awkward, and I really should have included that scene when I was listing the film's faults at the beginning of this write-up. And while this subplot was never a good idea to begin with, a few years ago it would have been far less uncomfortable. But, my question is, would one have preferred that Boyhood include more awkward moments like this? As I said, Boyhood's strength is that it remains flexible. It simply couldn't have done so if it ever hoped to take a stance on any issue as large as race.

The article I linked to above brought up the idea that the film is supposed to be relatable. And it argues that having a white male protagonist prevents it from being so (a similar argument has been made but dealing with the subject of gender, which I think is addressed fairly well in this article). But, the people I see calling the film "relatable" are the critics, not the filmmakers. I don't think Boyhood was meant to primarily be relatable, I think it was meant to be accessible, and Linklater achieves accessibility through the clarity of the characters and the storytelling. It is not meant to reflect our own experiences, it is meant to tell the story of Mason's. And that story is truly told beautifully.

Although, to be fair, bowling is one of the whitest sports out there. Right behind badminton.

Perhaps Boyhood should have taken on more issues, but I simply don't know if Linklater--a straight white male like myself-- would be the one who should tackle them. That's simply not where his strengths lie (as the awkward white savior subplot with Olivia shows). But I also know that this film would not have been possible without Linklater at the helm. He directs it with such a steady hand, and shows confidence in the face of a very uncertain experiment. More than that, he makes it feel effortless. It is such a personal project, and so very quintessential of everything Linklater does that the film could simply not exist without him. So, it's a catch-22. You can take Linklater's flaws with the film, but you have to also give him credit for the film's overwhelming successes. Despite its flaws, Boyhood is a truly remarkable experience. Unlike any film made before, and unlike any film I imagine will be made in the future. That is why it has drummed up such emotion in its audiences. That is why it is still remembered so many months after its release. It may not have been my absolute #1 pick for my favorite film of the year, but I still would name it "Film of the Year." It's the film from this year that I think has the best chance of being remembered for years to come. It's a film that will exist on "Best movies ever made" lists many years into the future. If you watch it, you will understand why.

Richard Linklater and a grown-up Ellar Coltrane share a hug on the last day of filming Boyhood.

No comments:

Post a Comment