BOYHOOD (2014, Richard Linklater)
Towards the end of DAZED & CONFUSED, some high school seniors are lying on the grass of a football field looking up at the stars at night, and they talk about how despite the awful conditions of the school, the authority figures and the ultimate meaninglessness, it’s about you want to look back and be able to say “you did the best you could while you were stuck in this place… had as much fun as you could while you were stuck in this place.” It’s the kind of existentialist call-to-arms that comes natural to 17- and 18-year-olds.
The Linklater that wrote those lines knew himself quite well those 20 years ago, and he knew himself even better 12 years ago, when he began work on this sensational achievement. What it leads to is another 18-year-old boy thinking similar things, having similar philosophical crises, but the work around him has a special kind of power — because it isn’t just a snapshot of one night at the end of school: it’s hundreds of snapshots over more than a decade; a living photo album; a talking historical slideshow; a moving diary. For a film whose chief artistic message is the unremitting passage of time, the inevitability of aging, and the impermanence of youth, the form itself is the thing that counters its very argument. The images and moments have been captured and they will live on. And it breathes like a living thing, more tactile than any memory of a forgotten childhood.
It makes sense, of course, that Mason aspires to be a photographer — he has an eye, he sees things differently, and he wants to capture images so they don’t disappear. The first of many indelible shots Linklater shoots is that of Mason’s friend waving goodbye as Mason moves to the next of his many homes. The kid is on a bike, Mason is in a car, and some foliage blocks their view of each other as the vehicles just whiz the boys away from each other. That inability to really say goodbye has quite an impact on young Mason, and he will continue to grapple with the things that happen when you move on.
It also makes sense that Mason’s father is an artist — he comes off initially as that cheesy Guitar Guy you meet first at college parties and then later on when he becomes a more depressing adult, but the more you get to know this prototypical cool-dad, you bond with those goofy songs he sings and find his obsession with classic rock endearing. Like father, probably like son. (I don’t want to ignore Ethan Hawke’s reliably terrific portrayal of the dad — Hawke is at his best with Linklater, and this is no exception). Mason gets some first-class scenes with his mom (Patricia Arquette, just as great), one where her sense of humor cracks his teenage-tough exterior, and one where his enthusiasm reveals her own sadness. These parents are richly detailed, beautifully flawed, and quite understandable as the creators of this young man. I would have liked a solid final scene between Mason and his sister Samantha — a character who drifts into irrelevance in the film’s third act, sadly. And one or two supporting performances don’t really match up with those of the leads (and I don’t even know if it’s luck or Linklater’s scary casting ability back in 2001, but Ellar Coltrane sure turned into a fine actor). But this is a tear-jerking drama about an American life unfolding not as a short story, but as a fictional timelapse photograph that only the movies could deliver to us — yet one that no movie before it ever has.