In film class in college, we learned the difference between narrative and spectacle. Narrative, of course, was the story. Spectacle was, well, the songs and dances, or the special effects that dazzled, or the great set pieces like fights or cattle drives. Or perhaps, Carmen Miranda just standing there. In any event, the spectacle was the “wow” of the film.
Boyhood, the recent Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) film chronicling the life of a boy from the age of 7 to 18, has one dazzlingly spectacular element: It follows the boy, his mom and dad, his sister, and other people in the story, over a period of 12 years, and was filmed over the same period. You won’t see the “preteen” version of the lead character, then the older teen version of him. You see the real young actor, Ellar Coltrane, grow right in front of your eyes from a young boy to a young man named Mason. You see his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, grow (gracefully, to be honest) into middle age. Linklater’s daughter Lorilei plays Mason’s sister, and rounds out the central cast.
The narrative territory isn’t unique to this film, Director Michael Apted’s Up documentary series chronicles a group of young folks at seven-year intervals, and therefore owns its own unique place. But that’s a documentary, and Boyhood is a drama.
Boyhood’s story is rather rudimentary, which works well as a structure for the astounding parade of advancing time. The film’s formal approach is straightforward and basic, though it seems to have moved in a little closer to the characters over time. Linklater may actually have bent over a little too far backwards in streamlining and simplifying the film’s style in the beginning. But there is no feeling of shifting styles over the years, which helps keep the story moving forward and our attention where it belongs.
The various milestones of age are there, but not the typical teen-movie progression of “first-time activities” such as drinking, drugs, sex, etc. This is the story of one young boy and his journey to adulthood. Larger statements can be inferred, but this isn’t a political or social commentary masquerading as a particular person’s story. The interlude with new Christian step-grandparents is a bit awkward and clichéd, with guns and Gospel preaching presented just this side of condescending. But even viewing this segment of the film as a preacher myself, Mason’s look of pain in the church service was genuinely funny and might well have been Coltrane’s finest acting moment in the film.
The two adult actors do fine work throughout, as expected. Their characters have opposite arcs, with Arquette’s mom a harried single mom who keeps making questionable choices in men, and Hawkes’ dad as a ne’er-do-well dragged kicking and screaming into a semblance of responsibility. Lorilei Linklater’s performance is not particularly strong, but not distracting. Some of her attitudinal teen responses, in fact, contribute greatly to the realism of the film.
Of course the big risk and big success is Coltrane as Mason. It’s impossible to tell what he’s capable of as an adult actor. But he and Linklater have created a completely believable and singular character with life and breath and thought and heart—plus the requisite teen attitude. Coltrane could have been a washout, or have dropped from the filming process sometime over the 12-year creation period. He could have been a male Shirley Temple, talented as a child and not particularly so as he grew. Part of the joy of watching the film is realizing all the many elements that had to fall into place for this film to reach completion (e.g., someone could have died, become caught in a franchise with no escape, or could have just decided they’d had enough).
One performance that should be noted (spoiler alert) is that of Marco Perella (Sin City, A Scanner Darkly), who plays the almost-major character of Professor Bill Welbrock, Arquette’s character’s second husband. Coming off as both genuinely nice and subtly but creepily sketchy at the same time, we see his outer shell begin to crack and finally disintegrate over time. (One wonders as the film goes on if Linklater is making some kind of statement about the ravages of alcohol with this character and one other.) In a film that generally eschews big moments, Perella creates one that makes you almost jump out of your seat, and the realism Linklater has built up during the film gets a big emotional payoff in the scene. His character almost threatens to break out of the world of the film, but instead expands and enriches it.
In stories such as this, beginnings are easy and endings more difficult. There is something of the typical romance structure to the end, but this film isn’t a romance of any kind. We are left with a young, slightly wounded, intelligent young man who we presume will grow up some more and will alternately conquer and struggle with the issues of his upbringing. Perhaps the strongest statement is a quiet one about survival and hope for the future, but the film ends so delicately that no particular statement is made.
Any serious film person should see Boyhood, and anyone else wanting to see a spectacle that doesn’t involve car crashes, aliens, superheroes or the supernatural. This is a spectacular film, where the spectacle is life and growth and time itself. There may not be another film like it in our lifetimes.