Richard Linklater (who turned 54 on Wednesday) is my age group’s great American filmmaker: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, School of Rock and the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) haven’t been exclusively about us, but they’ve certainly explored our society and, in the case of the Before films, the similarities and differences between us and others.
Now with Boyhood (which opens in Nashville today at the Belcourt Theatre) his look at modern Americana covers an engrossing 12-year period in the life of a Texas-based boy named Mason. And though much has been made of the fact that filming took that many years (I’ve read critiques comparing its partly documentary feel with Michael Apted’s Up series, though I think that comparison is strained) with the same actors playing him, his sister and his parents, it’s the powerful illusion of reality created by the writer-director Linklater and storytelling colleagues that ultimately makes this brilliantly-drawn film one of this still-young century’s finest dramas.
As we see the journey Mason (Ellar Coltrane) takes from six to 18 we also get the paths of his somewhat-combative sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater), his often-misused mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his initially feckless father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Just as the children mature physically and emotionally we watch their previously-divorced folks go through new marriages, a return to school, spousal abuse, divorce, added work and home responsibilities and other ups and downs familiar in contemporary family life. And because this is set in the South we get some guns and religion, too, though like the historical events of the period this movie notes we’re not overwhelmed by societal mores; Boyhood is just that, a cinematic glimpse into the rich yet regularly mundane everyday of a youngster’s existence.
The knowledge that the narrative course for this 164-minute feature wasn’t the random affair it might appear at first glance makes it even more impressive – as Linklater noted in an interview published by Backstage, “I think people want to project on it a certain randomness, and that was [part of it]. But there was a master plan, a trajectory of all the characters – the beginning, middle, end, and where it was going. I’m a big believer in structure and outlines – I know the end before I start.”
The performers have found the freedom in that well-planned structure to make us believe they’re real. This is most true of the incredible variety of subtle shades Arquette gives to the bedrock figure she inhabits; we see her strength and admire it all the more because Arquette reveals her character’s weak points too. Arquette, who was terrific in her Emmy and SAG Award-winning performance in TV’s “Medium” series as well as her recent appearances in “Boardwalk Empire”, gets the best film role she’s ever had and makes it the most of the opportunity.
Hawke is great showing Mason Sr.’s path from classic sports car to family vehicle; Lorelei Linklater easily takes us from petulant youngster to young woman; and Coltrane, who evolves from sweet-faced first-grader to bohemian-looking high school grad, like his on-camera sibling surrenders himself to the appropriately understated rhythms of this mirror-up-to-nature.
Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly provide perfect fly-on-the-wall cinematography, and Sandra Adair’s editing emphasizes the largely easy ebb-and-flow of this piece well. Linklater’s crystal-clear vison of American family life burns on a low but incandescent flame that mesmerizes with its pure realism.
Click here to go to the Belcourt Theatre website for showtimes and tickets. This film is rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use. Click here to visit the film’s official website.
*Photos courtesy IFC Films.