|Ellar Coltrane grows up in Boyhood.|
««« Boyhood. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. At selected theaters.
Making movies under normal circumstances is hard, but apparently not hard enough for Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life). For his latest, Linklater decided to present a family epic told over twelve years by literally shooting it over twelve years—by gathering his cast once a year to shoot a few scenes at a time. Cut together, Boyhood depicts the coming of age of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as the actor literally grows up before our eyes.
It's probably not necessary to review how many ways the project could have gone wrong. Not only Coltrane but the entire cast (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, the director's daughter Lorelei) grows and changes over the course of the story, and if any one of them suddenly wasn't available the entire premise would have been undermined. With audiences keyed into this unique opportunity—and no chance to go back in time for reshoots—Linklater could not re-cast any of the parts.
The making of Boyhood was not only a high-wire act, it was a high-wire act that took twelve years to perform. That the film reached theaters at all is a small kind of miracle. Like an author who managed to write an entire novel without using the word "the", it's the kind of self-imposed handicap that earns automatic "stunt points."
That said, a conceit is still just a conceit. The buzz around how the film was made can threaten to distract from the more important question—was it worth it? Does shooting a coming-of-age story this way bring anything to it that wouldn't otherwise have been possible? In this regard, Boyhood is less successful. To the degree that it is good, it's because of the light, understated touch Linklater has shown in his other, conventionally-made films.
Linklater's script traces the story of Mason, his single mother (Arquette), sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater), and the errant, mercurial father (Hawke) who is in and out of his life. Starting from the age of six, Mason goes through an utterly familiar but still touching series of small crises—the temporary friendships, the unwanted moves, the bad marriages to would-be fathers who inevitably disappoint. As played by Coltrane, Mason is a quiet kid who grows up into a reflective, taciturn young man with no burning interests (except, perhaps, photography). Linklater wisely presents his changes seamlessly, letting events such as elections—or the electronic gadgets Mason is playing with at the time—track the passage of time.
Family drama naturally lends itself to drama. But keeping the way it was made in mind, Linklater wisely keeps the emphasis on continuity—the fascination of watching some things change as others don't at all. Though there are disruptions in his life, Mason keeps the air of interested bystander, as if storing up impressions for some future art project. Despite how much we see of Coltrane's personal development, Boyhood is really the sentimental education of a young storyteller like Linklater himself.
The restrained tone fits the circumstances of Boyhood's making, but it doesn't soar. When we think of the truly memorable depictions of growing up male in American movies—Stand by Me, Robert Duvall bouncing a basketball off young Michael O'Keefe's head in The Great Santini—they tend to cut more deep than broad. In this sense, Boyhood is daring only in conception.
Of course, when he cast Coltrane as a child, Linklater had no idea if he would grow up to be a good adult actor. In fact, the character is so passive it's hard to tell if he was written that way, or Linklater was tailoring his demands to the kid's talents. Suffice it say that Coltrane grows up to resemble a full-scale version of Peter Dinklage, albeit without Dinklage's out-size charisma. For what it's worth, I actually prefer Linklater's other longitudinal project—his conventionally-made "checking in" with lovers Jesse and Celine every decade in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight.
Coltrane and Linklater earn more than stunt points in Boyhood. But like Patricia Arquette complains in the film, I can't help wondering why there wasn't more.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro