This past weekend, Tara and I celebrated our sixth anniversary by indulging in a long overdo Six Flags/Days Inn/ New Jersey trip. Actually, there is more significance to this expedition because we had been going to Darien Lake every year when we were in high school and college and hadn’t been to a theme park in probably eight years. Tara loves roller coasters and I try to keep up, but I’m finding my fear of heights more and more crippling as time passes. After a long day of acting tough but looking queasy and worried, I felt it would be nice to see Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and make all of my upstate friends jealous. I was trying to find a way to catch it without driving into the city so Montclair, NJ seemed the best option. Tara pointed out that she had driven once a long time ago to see my old band play there but I had no recollection. Once we got there however I quickly realized that I had played the Bloomfield Ave Café – a since-closed, poorly lit DIY punk/metal venue with a creaky floor - more than a few times. Montclair is reminiscent of Ithaca, NY but with more of a slope. We went to the Bow-Tie Cinema where on Sundays they would should discounted older films such as “Niagra,” “The Hustler,” “Laura,” “All That Jazz,” and “Double Indemnity.” I contemplated doing this instead but the movie was “Funny Girl” so I stuck with the plan. The theater was completely empty when we got our tickets but within minutes the room filled up with septuagenarians and their children. In this way I don’t think Bow Tie is all that different from our own Art Mission’s demographic.
“Boyhood” opens with six year old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) staring up a cloudy blue sky with one of his little arms behind his head, and the other pointing upwards. He looks calm but reflective, a fairly unswerving guise that the little dude cultivates over the next 12 years. For those who don’t know, Linklater and crew made the movie over the course of 12 years, gathering annually and shooting for a few days under IFC’s buck (an estimated 200,000 a year). It took 39 days to shoot and I’m not quite sure how the script was constructed, specifically how much of Ellar’s life and personality were improvised or changed last minute. I’d wager that most of the major adult character’s trajectory were the result of conversations between Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Linklater a la the “Before” trilogy. I’d also wager that the nominal plot that guides the family through the 12 year span, as well as most of the mini-mile markers that give the film its spunk, sprang from Linklater’s collaboration and relationship with his actors. It’s a film about the moments in life that stick out.Over the course of those 12 years Mason is uprooted twice, endures two alcoholic stepdad’s who overcompensate for a lack of masculine self-esteem, falls in and out of love with a girl, and graduates high school. These are some of the big moments in a film held together by the smaller stuff. While it could be considered aimless and meandering, it’s the characters (Mason, Mom, Dad, and Samantha) that glue everything together. Our love and identification with this family propels the narrative forward where other films would probably flop around gasping for air. Linklater’s empathic formula strives to not limit and restrict characters to tapered plot devices but to subvert and challenge our preconceived notions of good and bad nature. Here he invites us to reconsider Ethan Hawke’s “deadbeat” dad, even if his absence causes so much added stress and heartache on Patricia Arquette’s mom. Both parents are allowed their failures, while we never doubt their love and integrity.
While I’d be more than happy to gush uncontrollably about this film and the happiness it brought me, I should point out that it sputters from time to time in his 2 hour and 42 minute running time. Almost all of these lapses in tone and judgment deal with bad behavior. First we have two stepdad’s whose comparable corrosions don’t really add up to much beyond cliché. It’s clear that the director has little respect for macho posturing and right wing nuttiness (no scene more clumsy and disingenuous than the Nobama dude threatening to shoot the kids for posting Obama/Biden signs on his lawn), but his passion sometimes wrings out the worst in his material. We are offered broad, if any, insights to why these men suddenly unravel. It’s almost a politically obligatory impulse for Linklater. And there is another brief scene that most of us can relate to, but probably find underdeveloped and ultimately pointless where two bullies harass Mason in the bathroom. I’ve had similar moments occur, especially around that age where some of my peer’s probably took out their home lives on us unsuspecting feminine dudes, but this scene isn’t much different than anything you’d see in high school movies Hollywood has offered up many times before.
But while these mild blunders occur, they are impressively infrequent in a film that’s driven by interaction and dialogue. As in his previous film “Before Midnight,” “Boyhood” features a lot of scenes with people chatting while walking, laying down, sitting, eating, drinking, bowling, and driving. Many of these scenes are set against a dazzling picturesque milieu, putting Mason’s existence into a proper perspective. In “Midnight” Celine and Jesse argued their way through some of the most attractive vista imaginable, highlighting a sense of loss acquired through the passing of time. We watched as their pride and inability to concede essentially dismantled their once blossoming romance. Here Mason’s skin isn’t as thick, his ego isn’t as distended, and his listening skills possess a respect for what others have to impart. He wants to heed, and even when he indulges in some well articulated rambling he’s willing to admit that it’s just “profound bitching.” How did he gain such meekness and sensitivity? Was he born with it? Was it a result of being toothless and shut up by his abusive stepfather? Was it because both of his parent’s were outspoken and cared so much about Mason and his sister?
Part of the thrill of watching a young boy grow up into a good young man is in taking apart and reassembling some of the pieces that got him to that perfect final shot (the best I’ve seen in a long time). When you disassemble some of the nomadic chatter, the intermediary shifts, the physical transformations, the domestic dynamics, and the cultural landmarks (songs, book releases, phones, video games, and Facebook) you begin to see Linklater’s design here. Because so much of “Boyhood” is about Mason’s place in all things (much like Malick’s Tree of Life), it’s hard to leave this movie without considering our own. It’s a movie that’s constantly moving frontward and rousing up recollections of our own connections to the passing of time. Watching it, I had a hard time not remembering times like looking at the lingerie section of the J.C. Penny catalogue with my brother, arguing with my younger brother only to get blamed by my oblivious mother, camping with my own father, admitting that I was high and drunk to my mom, and walking with friends behind the Texas Music Theater in San Marcos. “Boyhood” has a lurching effectiveness, it really sneaks up on you.