Life, fictionalized: Richard Linklater creates an interesting prototype in ‘Boyhood’

August 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 23, 2014

In 1991, Houston-born writer-director Richard Linklater released a shaggy dog of a movie with the title Slacker. Playing more like a documentary that switched subjects every five minutes or so than a traditionally structured movie, the film featured characters with names such as Should Have Stayed at Bus Station (played by the director himself), Grocery Grabber of Death’s Bounty, Espresso Czar/Masonic Malcontent, Happy-Go-Lucky Guy, Two for One Special, Traumatized Yacht Owner, Guy Who Tosses Typewriter and Handstamping Arm Licker. Over the course of about 97 minutes, Linklater’s camera restlessly moved from one character or group to another over the course of a day in the life of Austin, Texas.

Linklater’s newest movie, Boyhood, features a more typical narrative, and yet it’s hardly a typical feature. In fact, it’s rather like a reverse-engineered Slacker: Rather than focusing on various people who cross over — or at least near — each other’s paths during one day in one city, Boyhood follows a youngster, his family and their doings in different parts of Texas over the course of 12 years.

And when I write “12 years,” I mean that literally: Filming began more than a decade ago and continued every year or so as Linklater reconvened his core cast of four actors. (A few secondary characters appear in multiple segments.)

Boyhood’s story, to the extent it has one, involves families dissolving, forming, dissolving and reforming in varying permutations over the years. The divorced mother and father, played by Patricia Arquette and regular Linklater trouper Ethan Hawke, change from dissolute slackers (he more than she) to respectable professionals, making plenty of mistakes along the way. (She, perhaps, more than he.) Young Mason Evans Jr. (Austin native Ellar Coltrane) starts out as a young video-game-obsessed slacker who eventually develops a passion for music, art, photography and girls. In his spare time, the teenager Mason cultivates a personality that is both laconic and iconoclastic.

Perhaps fittingly, Boyhood’s strengths are also its weaknesses. There are some boring parts along the way. (This includes the opening segment, which is marred by a clichéd selection of contemporary songs.) Linklater makes some odd choices: At one party, a 13- or 14-year-old Mason and a college student of his mother’s engage in some light flirting, while at the same party, Arquette’s Olivia becomes intrigued with a younger male student of hers who has served three overseas tours of duty in the military. The veteran later joins the family, in a plot thread that doesn’t really go anywhere; the female student disappears after two scenes. At another party, Mason’s creepy restaurant boss barges in, makes a speech and seems to leer at both Mason’s mother and sister, but unnerving undertones aside, this part of the episode ends up being inconsequential.

So this movie about life — its quiet interludes as well as its dramatic moments — turns out in a sense to be rather lifelike. Some parts of the story are depressing; others, uplighting. How the balance is viewed will depend on — well, on the viewer.

The movie’s strongest episode is probably the third or fourth (it’s hard to keep track sometimes), in which one of the parents gets involved with a romantic partner who grows increasingly manipulative and threatening. The situation is resolved, sort of — a few people suddenly and permanently drop out of the picture, as sometimes happens in real life. One of Olivia’s children reacts with a shrug, while the other stages a standing temper tantrum.

The other child, incidentally, is Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), and while the actress is winning, she fits into the picture awkwardly at times. On occasion, she serves as a sort of Greek chorus, expressing plot points or emotions that the reserved Mason won’t (or that the other characters can’t do plausibly). By picture’s end, her character has been sent off to the University of Texas — a clear signal to the audience that we shouldn’t bother worrying over evidence of her questionable decisions.

The movie’s running time is just shy of two hours and forty-five minutes, but most of it flows so well that it hardly seems that long. The depiction of Mason’s junior (?) year of high school gets a bit bogged down when Mason and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) make a weekend visit to Austin in a mainly plot-free segment that plays like a miniature recapitulation of Slacker. Another exception is the movie’s coda: It takes place on Mason’s first day of freshman orientation at college, and it threatens to drag on for an excruciating half hour or so.

Ultimately, however, the final sequence provides the film with a short, rather unconvincing wrap-up. Mason, the director shows us, is on the cusp of manhood, about to begin the adventurous, perilous life of an independent adult.

The problem by the end of the movie is that Mason doesn’t really do anything. He talks, he listens, he shrugs, and then the events seem to repeat in slightly different fashion. What he discusses — feeling alienated from and discontented with the adults and adolescents in his life — is something common to the experience of many teenagers, true. But it simply isn’t that interesting; it was all I could to stop myself from rolling my eyes as Mason ranted about the pernicious influence of Facebook and smartphones. (His final rant, about digital surveillance and college roommate assignments, did elicit a chuckle from me.)

Boyhood is likable, even if falls short of greatness. I think the movie’s stature will grow over the years as people in Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater’s generation begin to look back on their youths nostalgically.

As far as the method of filmmaking goes, I doubt it will catch on. It’s an interesting twist on cinéma vérité, but the challenges would generally seem to outweigh the payoffs. Boyhood isn’t a trendsetter; instead, it’s a prototype, the test run for a service that will never enjoy much popularity.

Besides, if viewers want to follow the same people over the years, there’s an entire movie genre that’s more or less devoted to this proposition. It’s called documentary filmmaking, and it’s already produced the venerable “Up” series, which began in 1964 with 7 Up, an examination of the lives of 7-year-olds from a broad cross-section of British society, and has been renewed every seven years since then. (Last year’s entry, 56 Up, was directed by Michael Apted, a researched on the original who has helmed all the sequels.)

Experimentation is integral to Linklater’s creativity, so I can’t really begrudge him Boyhood’s failings. I do hope, however, that his next outing isn’t quite so mundane.

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