Tolstoy in Austin: Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’

By Emmanuel Bonin,
Guest Contributor

What happens when you get rid of a constitutive element of cinema, the movie shoot’s synchronicity? Cinema is one of the arts most concerned with time, and yet it hinges on a paradox, since even films supposed to take place over years or centuries are shot in a few weeks or months. Some artists decide to play with this paradox in movies supposed to take place in real time (think High Noon, the TV show 24 or more recently, Locke). No matter how masterful the illusion of real time on screen, this usually feels highly artificial, since it also took forever to create these supposedly real-time pieces.

Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Jr., 2002. Copyright IFC Films.

Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Jr., 2002. © Copyright IFC Films.

With Boyhood, Richard Linklater decided on a diametrically opposite approach, following a group of actors over a long period of time — 12 years — to create a fictional coming-of-age story that, thanks to its predicate, rings exceptionally true. The Texas-based director should be highly praised for his audacity. One of the best compliments to the film is that while we initially wish for the boy to grow up fast, in order to observe and indulge in the device, this simple family story grows on us very quickly and makes us forget about the trick.

And 12 years later. Copyright IFC Films.

…And 12 years later. © Copyright IFC Films.

Thanks to a consummate art of the ellipse, we follow the story of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), a six-year-old boy from the Lone Star state who grows into a college freshman over the course of 12 years. But we don’t lose track of his divorced mother (Patricia Arquette), his estranged dad (Ethan Hawke) and his at times annoying but always awkwardly cute sister (Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei).

For a few years now my wife, my son and I have been watching The Andy Griffith Show, that milestone of Sixties Americana. Since we only see a few episodes per month, and in chronological order, we are probably still in season 2 or 3, and Andy’s son Opie, played by a young, pre–Happy Days Ron Howard, has not aged too much yet. I know, though, that the show ran for 12 years, and like Mason Jr.’s, Opie’s voice will break, he will grow some facial hair, and I can cheat with my remote control to steal an image of him as a teenager in the last episodes. Boyhood rewards you with the same forbidden pleasure in a much shorter time (just under three hours).

Cinematic forerunner: Satyajit Ray's APU trilogy.

Cinematic forerunner: Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy.

I often thought of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy while viewing Boyhood. Part of the fascination the Indian master’s films held for me and my son when we saw the trilogy during a retrospective at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica had to do with the novelistic approach to cinema. Following one character from birth to adulthood, Ray goes beyond the individual to describe a family, a society, a world.

Linklater does the same, and the veracity of his method lends a unique documentary flair to the film. Of course one can despair about the world it portrays, since this century’s Texas can seem a dreary place to live in. But to a certain extent so was Calcutta in the 1950s, and this is still fodder for great art and great emotion.

Of course, the young Ellar Coltrane may not be Jean-Pierre Léaud, and I am not convinced that I would want to follow Mason Jr.’s subsequent life the way I do Antoine Doinel’s. Behind his pleas to unorthodoxy lies a rather conventional contemporary teenager, just artsy enough to fulfill the expectations of parents who look, live and think like Richard Linklater and his wife. And the cinematic emotion probably does not equal what one feels when viewing Léaud emerge 40 years later on a bench in the Père-Lachaise cemetery during Tsai Ming Liang’s 2001 film What Time Is It Over There?.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane. Copyright IFC Films.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane. © Copyright IFC Films.

But in Boyhood there is breadth, ambition and amazing acting by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and an emotion reminiscent of many coming-of-age films like The 400 Blows (one of Linklater’s Top 5 favorite films) or Running on Empty. On a personal note, the movie basically covers a period of time very similar to my living in the United States, from Bush’s first term and his reelection to Obama II. I have been to Austin, Houston, and even Big Bend, where Mason goes hiking with his roommates upon entering college. Patricia Arquette plays a big role in my love for Los Angeles on film, thanks to her incarnation of Alice/Renee in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. So during the film’s almost three hours, not only did I see this family evolve on screen, I also felt myself age, mature and grow old. Rare nowadays are the films that allow the viewer to establish such a connection.

In an epoch when much contemporary art concerns itself with the relationship between image and time (most obviously, Christian Marclay’s The Clock) it is refreshing to see a director literally take the time to reflect upon it with the tools of his craft, in a highly likable mode. The process most resembles Nicholas Nixon’s series of pictures of the Brown Sisters, whom we see age for 35 years in front of his camera; Linklater brings the same audacity, tenacity and discipline to his film. And most importantly, Linklater sets the right tone for his story, and sometimes acts as a visionary, as the campfire conversation about the possibility of a new Star Wars film attests.

"Son, let me tell ya about Gen-X..." Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke. Copyright IFC Films.

“Son, let me tell ya about Gen-X…” Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke. © Copyright IFC Films.

Toward the end of the film, before Mason Jr. graduates from high school, he is developing pictures in a traditional darkroom when his art teacher enters and forces him into an uneasy discussion about talent and art, scolding him for not adhering to the ethos of the digital workflow. What the teacher says has a lot to do with Linklater’s methodology: it takes discipline and work to realize a project like Boyhood, to follow through on the kind of good idea you usually discuss around a drink but fail to pursue.

Shot under a strong red light on film stock, and then digitized to be projected on today’s digital machinery, the scene is one of several in the film that subtly hints at one of the most moving non-diegetic aspects of the whole enterprise. We see ourselves aging not only in the constantly evolving bodies and postures of Mason Jr., Sr., their daughter, sister and wife, but also in the grain of celluloid that contrasts with the bland and almost transparent imagery of the previews the viewer has to endure in the theater, before the film. That grain is omnipresent in the night scenes, when father and son go camping, during the sophomore party, and it pervades more subtly throughout the whole film. When setting out to shoot this story of transition in 2002, could Linklater have had a clue that beyond his script and process, his film would bear testament in its very materiality to changes to come?

Watch the trailer for Boyhood here:

Click here to read Richard Linklater’s list of his Top 5 favorite films.

Vadim Rizov on how Boyhood was shot on 35mm but is only being screened digitally.

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