Monday, January 12, 2015

Deeper By The Dozen

Year: 2014
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Run Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Welcome back to the "Brennan's A Little Late" blog, where our current topic of discussion is Boyhood, Richard Linklater's 2014 critical darling. The film, depicting the coming of age of Texas boy Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), was shot in pieces over the course of 12 years and compiled into a single narrative in which a sprawling tale of life is shown in more or less real time, as Coltrane ages, pupates, and grows before our eyes.

They might has well have just called the boy "Oscar" and gotten it over with.

As people do in life, characters come and go during Boyhood's decade and change, but at the film's center are Mason, his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), his absentee father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Their lives are splayed out and dissected in intimate detail in front of us as Olivia cycles through a wheel of deadbeat husbands, Mason Sr. attempts to get his life together, Mason Jr. plays video games and mopes about glum philosophy, and Samantha watches Lady Gaga music videos and is generally a useless, petulant turd like most high schoolers.

No story beat really adheres to the next. Moment after moment occurs with no clear arc or progression, except for the inexorable march of time. The movie is so long that this storytelling style might have quickly become a problem, but Boyhood's frequent time jumps keep the pace brisk, turning a sprawling narrative into a series of short, pointedly unconnected vignettes.

The best thing I can say about the story and the stakes, as minimal as they may be at times, is that they avoid common tropes are unconventionally subtle for indie movie territory, largely avoiding the excesses and obscenities that other filmmakers might use, given a similar gimmick. Luckily, Linklater has proven himself as a master of low-key storytelling and ineffable patience with his Before [Whatever] trilogy, and his presence here is incalculably valuable.

In a way, his style is like... a magnifying glass that... lets us explore Ethan Hawke's face? (Captions are tough.)

But while its gestures toward innovation in storytelling are unique and precise, on the level of pure craft, Boyhood is a fairly average film. There are some long, lingering takes and impressive tracking shots that imperiously plant you in the time and place, but the cinematography generally avoids flashy tricks. It's an average looking film for an average looking life. The performances are likewise toned down and avoid grappling for attention. 

Patricia Arquette is by far the standout, bringing a magnetic gravity and realism to a woman blundering her way through life. And Ethan Hawke is no stranger to Linklater jerking him around a decade at a time, so his performance is skillful if less captivating. Ellar Coltrane does just fine (considering how hard it is to cast child actors and just pray that they improve as they age), although he isn't given much to work with besides being a gloomy teen. The weakest link is Lorelei Linklater, whose name gives the whole story away, I should think.

As a child, she demanded she be included in her father's movie, but after a couple years she grew bored of playing pretend. She finds her focus again later on as she retreats to the sidelines, but for several years she is inconsistent and shrill, actively battling against the tone of the movie. Likewise, her skin tone and hair color actively thwart the already One-Direction-biography thin pretense that the four actors involved are genetically related in any way.

How can Caucasian parents have a red son? It just doesn't make sense!

What I have described thus far is a film that's pleasant, but largely pointless. It's fun to watch time pass and marvel at the technological innovations and cultural signifiers (Harry Potter, Lady Gaga, Nintendo consoles, and Barack Obama get the biggest airtime. It's like a nostalgic treasure hunt.), but the stories themselves have no apparent link until the film's final moments, when the whole sprawling tableau lies before you in one wondrous piece.

It's no grand drama and there's no hero. There's no character arc or antagonist. There's no happy ending, nor is there a tragedy. The characters just bump into one another and, depending on the timing, stick around or don't. But that's just life, isn't it? Your ability to enjoy Boyhood as more than a series of average events lies in active viewership and contemplation about the nature of life, relationships, and aging rather than... you know, actually being an interesting story.

It's not quite as transcendently powerful as the rave reviews have been saying. And it's certainly not for everyone.

In fact, I get the sense that Mason himself wouldn't be a fan of it.

But Boyhood shows us that everybody is just as stuck in the moment and confused about the future as we are and that the mundane human experience is the thing we have most in common. If I might hazard a guess, I'd say this film only gets better as we get older. Speaking as a 20-year-old in Southern California, I'm less powerfully impacted by Boyhood's apparent randomness than, say, a middle aged father of three. But I see what the film has to say about life, the universe, and everything and haven't stopped thinking about it since I sat down to watch it. A film like that just doesn't come around every day. Even if that film is a little bit affably banal.

I certainly wish that the central figure was less of a wet mop and that the film didn't insist on making us watch Ethan Hawke playing the guitar so damn much, but the film rises above that sort of petty nonsense. Boyhood is a valuable film text for the young and old, as long as you have the patience to let it wash over you.

TL;DR: Boyhood is, from my angle, a tad too aimless, but nevertheless I am not immune to its charms.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1024


  1. Brennan, I just wanted to say that you've been on a roll lately with the wisecracks. You made me laugh at my desk, threatening my very livelihood, sir, at the "red son" remark.

    1. I live to serve - and dismantle your employment piece by piece.