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Life Is Slight: Boyhood by Richard Linklater

Saturday 2 August 2014, by Jack Wormell

Although I was planning to see Double Play, a potentially interesting documentary about the friendship between film directors Richard Linklater and James Benning, the former a long-standing darling of American semi-indie who flirts with Hollywood (The School of Rock), the other a firm outsider of the mainstream who makes feature length, non-narrative landscape films, it was cancelled.

So instead I went to watch Linklater’s latest film Boyhood, and with the spectre of Double Play looming over that it’s interesting to look at Linklater’s intentions and techniques and how he attempts to forgo conventional narrative but remain within a certain American mainstream.

With this film Linklater has attempted to make the ‘anti-coming of age tale’ if you will. It’s Stand By Me without a narrative shaped by a teenager’s growing awareness of death. It’s The Tree of Life without the cosmic approach. It’s a film of moments, most of them inconsequential. Filmed over twelve years using the same actors, it shows in ellipses the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of five to eighteen, growing up in Texas. He fights with his sister (Lorilei Linklater), they visit their flaky dad (Ethan Hawke) and they begrudgingly accept their mum’s (Patricia Arquette) various husbands, one of whom is downright nasty (frighteningly played by Marco Perella.)

On the whole Linklater excludes what a more conventional approach would include – a divorce scene, a graduation scene, cathartic arguments etc – and by using straight cuts to link scenes rather than dissolves, or any other device, Linklater maintains his central thesis – that life is a fluid ongoing strip, rather than a series of ‘key defining moments’. This means that a cut may take us to a few hours later, but it could just as likely be a few years. We’ll only be alerted to the fact that there has been a temporal shift perhaps a minute into the scene.

Mason’s mum mentioning in passing that she’s now two husbands down, in a broader conversation with her son about selling the house, tells us that the previous scene in which her husband Jim (Brad Hawkins) argues with Mason was not the night before as we had assumed, but is actually a year or two down the line. This allows the film a fluid feel while also creating a subtle sense of the jarring which we only realise after the fact, creating an active guessing game between film and spectator that keeps us awake to the miniscule threads of narrative that weave the film together.

For sure Linklater relies on more standard techniques to ease the film along, music being the obvious tool which at times becomes grating, but generally he admirably restrains from scenes reaching definitive conclusions, characters being defined by their actions and creating windows into character’s psychology. Even though Mason and his sister Samantha bear witness to a fairly discordant relationship between their father and mother, endure living with an abusive step-dad and see Mum in various states of distress (one particular scene with the aforementioned step-dad screams out at us when we least expect it, and with an economy of style that doesn’t feel gratuitous in its handling of domestic violence) they seem to be fairly well-rounded teenagers.
Linklater does not crowbar in any obvious signs of stress or dysfunction – Mason and Samantha just kind of get on with it. Equally interesting is his treatment of their relationship as siblings; throughout the film they are fairly antagonistic to one another and as they grow older their childish squabbling becomes a cool acceptance of one another that we are never fully given privy to – are they close? It doesn’t seem so. Will they mature and become more affectionate towards one another as adults? Who knows? It doesn’t look like it.

As an audience we are never given the usual scene of redemption and ‘oh it’s fine, they love each other really’ moment. The film has a melancholy flatness throughout, underpinned by Mason’s expressionless, at times confused-looking face, staring up at the sky at the beginning, peering from under his teenage rock star hair as a fourteen year old. I found a wafer thin melancholy hanging over the film because of this slightness – I felt it captured the small indifference that we feel in moments of strange clarity, a remoteness of the moment that doesn’t really gel with the next stage. In fact there aren’t really any stages. Mason’s mum tragi-comically expresses this when as he packs for college – she tearfully yells that the next watershed moment in her life will be her ‘fucking funeral!’ It’s funny but also tells of how we expect our lives to be defined by ‘key moments’ that offer us epiphanic understandings of ourselves, of what has come before in our lives and where to go next. Linklater humorously reverses the roles of child and parent – an unsure parent, confused and uneasy about her future whereas her child going off to college is disarmingly calm. Annoyingly the film overemphasizes the themes in the final scene, spelling it out a bit too plainly for my liking.

Boyhood does suffer slightly from lacklustre performances – I think a film with this approach would have benefited from a more naturalist turn in the acting. At times, particularly in the first half, the dialogue is somewhat stilted and lacks the vitality and documentary energy that you would expect from a film concerned with the everyday. The performances are rooted too much in a more mainstream style of Hollywood acting that I personally didn’t think suited. This was especially frustrating because Linklater has so pointedly set the film so that it ends pretty much around now (or the last few years); therefore the characters live through cornerstones of our recent history (Harry Potter, the war in Iraq, the election of Obama), but the style of acting tears the film away from this reality.

So to with the overuse of music – Linklater has always used indie rock music to imbue his films with the hazy feel of teenage years, but at times it becomes a shortcut to emotional underpinning, veering dangerously close to a tweeness that recalls Shane Meadows at his worst. Still, a strangely affecting film that evokes something of the indifference of teenage years when most other films on this subject are showcasing rites-of-passage and the supposed euphoric rushes and drama of school life; in fact very little of Boyhood takes place in school, which again is refreshing. Perhaps not a righteous attack on mainstream narrative tropes, but a refreshing look at a much covered topic.

Dir: Richard Linklater, 2014

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