One of my favorite scenes from “Boyhood.” The father played by Ethan Hawke gives his son a mix CD and tries to explain why it’s so great. His son, played by Ellar Coltrane, graciously accepts the CD, but has a look on his face that he’s been down this road many times before with his Dad. The Hawke and Coltrane characters are good people, but let’s just say, I’m trying really hard NOT to be that kind of dad re: pop culture and my kids.
By now, most people know the story of the making of “Boyhood.” Writer-director Richard Linklater assembled a group of actors 12 years ago to document the growth of a boy from six years old to 18, showing moments from each year of his life and family. The principal actors (Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr., Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as mother Olivia, and Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr.) filmed parts of the story over 12 years, while the director and actors worked on other projects. The result is an extraordinary look at ordinary people, struggling to make sense of the challenges around them. Like most of us, some years are good, some bad, most of them on a continuum in-between.
“Boyhood” is one of the best movies of our current century. With the amount of acclaim “Boyhood” has received in the past several months, the contrarian side of me wanted to find things not to like about it. While “Boyhood” is not a perfect film, it’s one of the most satisfying film experiences I’ve ever had.
As Olivia and Mason Sr., Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke deliver the best performances I’ve ever seen of single parents in a fictional narrative. One thing that becomes very clear when you become a parent is that most of the time, you’re making it up as you go along. No one has it figured out and when you think you do, life and karma have a funny way of reminding you that you really don’t. Olivia and Mason Sr. don’t always make the best decisions, but overall, they’re good people and good parents. At the beginning, Olivia is the mature one, while Mason Sr. is still finding himself … a task that’s easier when you don’t have primary custody of two small children. Olivia makes decisions that most of us think would be good ones (going back to school, choosing to marry a professor), but those decisions take an unexpectedly bad turn. That’s the funny thing about life … even when you thoughtfully and carefully make choices, sometimes those choices turn out to be bad ones. Arquette does a terrific job of conveying the complexity of someone who seems to have things figured out, but continually makes bad choices (especially when it comes to men). Trust me, she OWNS the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year. At the same time, watching Mason Sr. evolve from lost slacker to responsible adult is a remarkable achievement on Hawke’s part. What could have easily devolved into a stereotype of a terminally immature and lost manchild, Mason Sr. is always likeable and most importantly, a very good parent, even at his most callow.
As the young leads, Coltrane and (Lorelei) Linklater do an extraordinary job of playing regular kids. In a film like this, there might be a tendency to portray these children as wise beyond their years in some way, but for the most part, Linklater defaults towards keeping it real. My only quibble … and trust me, it’s the only one in an otherwise terrific movie … is that by the time Mason Jr. approaches his 11th grade year, he comes off more as a thoughtful adult’s idealized portrait of a teenager than someone who is actually that age. It becomes especially clear in the romance between Mason Jr. and his girlfriend Sheena. Sorry, I realize that some of us out there may have had amazing significant others at that age, but no one has ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend as cool as Mason Jr. and Sheena. They come off more like mature 24-year olds than 17-year olds. Maybe that scenario does exist in the world, but experience tells me “no.”
Still, the great thing about “Boyhood” as well as Linklater’s earlier “Dazed and Confused,” is the way he allows his characters to do stupid, sometimes reckless, things … and there’s no horrible consequence that results. This may not be what we conventionally expect as moviegoers. When people warn a character about a danger or when we see someone do something careless in a film, we’re always expecting that to pay off in a negative way. But in real life, that doesn’t always happen. That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen to the characters in “Boyhood” on occasion, but for the most part, the film allows its characters to make mistakes and lets them off easy. It’s clear, not only from “Boyhood,” but from most of his films, that Linklater genuinely likes his characters. That spirit is what makes Linklater’s films so satisfying to watch and what ultimately makes you root for him and his films.
Of all the high school movies I’ve seen (good and bad), “Dazed and Confused” is the closest approximation to what I actually experienced. No, not because of the smokin’ and tokin’ or ritualized hazing. But more because the film is arguably the least sensational film ever made about teenagers.
Think about it, half the movies about teenagers are either leaden with doom and gloom (“Rebel Without a Cause,” “Kids,” “River’s Edge”). The other half portray teen life to be a non-stop hedonistic Bacchanalia of sex, drugs, booze, etc. While the characters in “Dazed” certainly party, the party in question is just a simple beer bash with one keg where the usual things happen: some people get into fights, some people hook up, some people act like fools, though most of the partygoers don’t do any of these things. At the end of the party (when the booze runs out), most people go their separate ways and that’s that. Nothing life changing happens, no character dies to show us that “partying is bad,” nobody gets laid and becomes a different person, and interestingly, no sense that this party changed any lives, good or bad. It’s just … over … and on to the next day.
The next time you watch “Dazed,” carefully look at the way it’s edited and shot. While the film has a lot of comedic moments, there’s an odd sense of dread permeating the entire film. Canadian film critic Robin Wood was the only person to describe it as a horror film and Linklater apparently wrote him a personal “thank you” note for noticing this. The dread that I get from “Dazed” has more to do with the sense that what lies ahead may not be as cool as the characters think it will be. There’s a lot of sequences that are shot in slow motion with sound mixing that doesn’t look anything like you’d see in a comedy. In my mind, the sense that nothing ever changes and/or necessarily gets much better is horrific enough for Linklater, that showcasing a death or OD or some other traumatic event would be overkill.
The other interesting thing (and why it reminds me so much of my youth), is the distinct lack of rigid divisions between cliques. Certainly, cliques exist in both “Dazed” and the high school I went to. But most people I knew may have belonged to a certain group, but most mingled freely with others. A lot of high school films, from “Mean Girls” to “Heathers” to most of John Hughes’s oeuvre portray a caste system worse than India’s and maybe that’s true for some schools, but it wasn’t my high school experience. Maybe I’m seeing a rosier past that I actually experienced, but I remember seeing “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” when I was a teenager, and while I could identify with certain things, a lot of it seemed like alien territory to me.
The attached trailer gives a decent flavor for the film, but it’s regretful that it’s played up like a Cheech and Chong comedy. Granted, I wouldn’t know how to market this thing either (complex works of art usually are), but I think the advertising campaign gave a false idea of what this movie was and I think this is why it took a LOOOOONG time to find an audience. Thankfully, it did.