Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Our Annual Family Reunion
"May the Circle Be Unbroken"

So, what has director Richard Linklater been doing the last twelve years? Well, he's been making mainstream movies (School of Rock, a remake of Bad News Bears) interesting indies (Me and Orson Welles, two of the "Before" movies with Ethan Hawke and Julie DelpyBefore Sunset and Before Midnight—and Bernie), even a dramatic knock-off of a documentary (Fast Food Nation). He also made A Scanner Darkly, an experimental low-budget animation, live-action hybrid of a Philip K. Dick story.

But in the background, he's been doing something even more ambitious—pushing the boundaries of cinema possibility—by transcending cinema-time—with an untitled project he's been filming in dribs and drabs every year, like a family reunion. Like Orson Welles (of whom he knows quite a bit), he'd film a little when he had the money, his cast able to assemble, and the germ of an idea for what to film.  

The idea is at once ambitious and as simple as could be—to film the interaction between children and parents over twelve years, from first bursts of independence to young adulthood. The result, finally titled Boyhood, is simultaneously an extraordinary idea for a film and a bit of a letdown as a film, probably because of the loosy-goosy nature of the story—when Linklater has a solid script, he rocks it; when he's being improvisational—well, he takes what he can get.
This idea of watching actors age naturally on-screen is hardly new—Francois Truffaut did several films in the Antoine Doinel series, and Satyajit Ray made the Apu trilogy over a series of years (Hell, we can even throw in the "Harry Potter" films for the amazing growing up we, as an audience, got to witness in the actors—the best thing about that series, actually).

The difference here is that Linklater does it in one 2 1/2 hour film and we see the changes those twelve years make quickly. In the space of an edit, another year has passed and the changes to the kids in the film (primarily Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, who plays Coltrane's sister) are profound, starting out subtly and then galumphing in large strides in their teen years. In the early sections of the film, you don't even know that time has passed until some indication that something has happened in the lives of the birth-parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke...again).

And a lot happens. When we're first introduced to the already-gone-nuclear family, Mom is struggling singly with the kids and a whiny relationship with some guy, and Dad takes them on the occasional weekend, when he's down from Alaska (they're in Texas). The kids wonder if they're going to get back together, but it's not going to happen—they married as kids and quickly grew apart, as she thinks about family and he (being male) thinks about himself. She moves the brood to Houston to live with her Mom and to attend classes at the University.

She begins a relationship with one of her professors (Marco Perella), they marry and the two families blend, and without much difficulty. But the professor has a different way of raising kids than Mom does, and that leads to clashes and he begins drinking and abusing her. She and the kids escape to a friend's house, splitting the family apart.
Mason jr., prone to video games to escape
Mom begins teaching psychology at the University and becomes established, and begins dating one of her students—she doesn't learn anything at this University—and young Mason, now a teen, discovers girls...and drugs...and alcohol. Mom marries her student, and, once again, the cycle of alcohol abuse begins anew.
The incidents start small and become incrementally larger and life-changing. Dad marries a Christian woman and semi-cleans up his act. Mom gets out of another abusive relationship, as the kids grow older and start their own. While watching Boyhood, one gets the sense that nothing much is happening, as kids approach adulthood and their parents approach the realization of what their lives have amounted to. But, with the perspective of time, one sees the cyclical (and cynical) nature of life in broad strokes in the film—the incidents seem less important than the overall arc, the shape of it.  

And if that is the intent, then the film is best appreciated in the remembering than the experience. If Linklater did build the film to show the parallels of parent to child, of experience and folly handed down from generation to generation, then maybe it is saying something profound, about life and its nature, of how the generations learn from their parents and might be doomed to repeat the same cycles, despite trying to break free and achieve their own sense of independence, finding their own way—but not entirely, just doing things a bit differently—from the paths imprinted on them by their parents.

I can't say I enjoyed Boyhood. But it has stayed in my brain, a memory that only has achieved a profound resonance over time. Not too unlike life itself.

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