Mason: Yeah, the moments. It’s constant. It’s like it’s always right now.
Say what you will about writer/director, Richard Linklater, but you can’t say he isn’t willing to take big risks for his art. His latest, and dare I say it, perhaps his greatest, BOYHOOD, epitomizes dedication to one’s craft and cements Linklater as one of today’s most daring, and brilliant, directors. The undertaking of this project is just enormous and the fact that he pulls it off is impressive enough in itself; that he was able to not just make this happen but also make what may be one of the most unique films ever made, is a feat that may never be matched again, at least not like this.
Allow me to explain. In 2002, Linklater began shooting what was then dubbed, “The 12 Year Project”. He cast a then 7-year-old, Ellar Coltrane, as Mason Jr., the main subject of the film and, for the next 12 years, Linklater, Coltrane, and a group of actors as eclectic as Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke would get together to shoot a series of short films whenever they could sync their schedules. Although surely a logistical nightmare, the effect of watching Mason grow both physically and emotionally before our eyes is well worth all of their efforts. It helps as well that Coltrane himself is extremely likeable; his talent maturing on screen just as he does. And no matter how much Mason changes over the years, you can still see the boy he once was in his eyes.
BOYHOOD doesn’t follow any traditional plot line per se. It just follows Mason as he grows from age 5 to about 17 or 18, when he graduates high school and heads off to college. When we first meet Mason, his mother (Arquette, who has never impressed me like she does here, ever) is struggling to make ends meet and they haven’t seen their father (Hawke) in a year and a half. His mother decides to go back to school to get a better job, which means Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter) must move and it won’t be the only time either. Over the years, people come in and out of their lives tangentially through their parents and take turns in shaping the people they will turn out to be. The flow of events is natural, organic and effectively efficient in execution. And while the events that take place in Mason’s childhood may not be what you or I lived through, there will always be elements of growing up that will remain universal.
It isn’t just about Mason at the end of the day either. We get to see snippets of all the important people in his life too and we get to know them through his eyes as well. While we get complete arcs for his mother and father, the people who are only in Mason’s life briefly are often even more tragic as never know what becomes of them after they aren’t in Mason’s life anymore. The manner in which they’re presented is also telling as the editing informs the viewer to even more insight. One minute, Mason’s stepfather (Marco Perella) is teaching him how to play golf and everyone is happy; the next, he is buying alcohol in case people come over; then cut to a drink being poured months later where clearly, no one is happy anymore. It almost feels too intimate at times but that’s perhaps because true intimacy like this is rarely captured so authentically on film.
Throughout the years, Mason and Samantha would spend random weekends with their father. Having worked with Linklater on his “Before” series, Hawke seems to have found a filmmaking partner who truly brings out the best in him. As Mason’s birth father, he comes back for some of the bigger, more father specific moments in Mason’s life. His dad is there to teach him how to throw a football around and to take him to ballgames, but he is also there to shape his musical tastes, his political views and to be there for everything from the sex talk to the first time he breaks up with a girl. Being absent most of the time makes the moments they do spend together have to count more and you can see how hard Hawke is working to leave his mark on his children, which is endearing as we know he is impressing upon them but he genuinely doesn’t know if he is or not.
BOYHOOD is nearly three hours long. This may sound intimidating but really the topic warrants the time spent on it. It never feels lengthy; in fact, it always feels like a privilege to be watching. Linklater has made a great time capsule movie too. The passage of time is seen through the physical changes in the characters themselves of course, but Linklater also does not shy away from stamping the time repeatedly on his film by pointing at cultural or political events. For instance, we know it is the fall of 2008 at one point because Mason refers to the three best films of the summer being TROPIC THUNDER, THE DARK KNIGHT and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. (The kid has taste too!) Linklater never specifically tells us when in time it is, or that some time has actually taken place, but he always allows us to piece it together ourselves with visual cues, which again only further draws the viewer in closer to his film.
Often times, BOYHOOD feels more like a series of memories than anything else. As many people can only remember their childhoods as fragmented moments, some significant, some seemingly irrelevant, it felt to me as if we as an audience were privy to Mason’s personality being formed right in front of us. If these were the boyhood memories he still remembered, then these would be, by nature the one’s that had the most influence over him at the most influential time of his life. In that sense, BOYHOOD takes on a much more precious meaning, as these are the moments that made Mason a man.