This Boy’s Life
By Johnny Pomatto
Director Richard Linklater has always been fascinated by the effects of time. His “Before Sunrise” series has successfully followed the romance of two characters over 18 years, with nine-year gaps in between each film. When a new “Before” film comes out it’s up to us to figure out the details of what has transgressed over the last 9 years, just based on their current, real time interactions and conversations. Linklater’s new masterpiece of a film, BOYHOOD, takes things a step further. Linklater filmed his actors over 12 years, taking his young protagonist from age 5 to 18 in the process. In sharing with us the adolescence of a boy named Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, Linklater has provided us with not just an unforgettable character, but he’s done nothing short of a creating a life.
From the opening shot of Mason gazing up into the clouds, I was half expecting the tone of BOYHOOD to be almost dreamlike and surreal. It seems like it would be easier to shape a life that would have to evolve over time if you kept things abstract and vague. However the world we see between 2001 and 2013 is very familiar to us. Mason loves “Harry Potter” books, and his sister, (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) sings the latest Britney Spears chart toppers. The in home lighting effects have that warm, bright florescent glow of what we remember from our own homes. This is very much the world as we remember it from the last 12 years. You might catch yourself reliving memories of your own as you watch Mason and his family during a particular time and place. For the first half hour or so of the film, I was hyperaware of anytime there was a change in Mason’s appearance. I’d instantly notice when a year had passed and then thought about what events the characters may have experienced in the previous year and what they might have to look forward to in the next one. However, I got over this pretty quickly once I became fascinated by the characters themselves and not the world around them.
One can imagine that Linklater had a few plot points he wanted to hit on when he first started this project, but most of the trajectory of the characters seems to be based on how the actors grew up and matured over time. This is film does not present Mason’s life as a series of greatest hits. Events that are typical for any young boy’s life are brushed over or avoided entirely. We don’t see Mason lose his virginity or try drugs for the first time, but still we know these things are happening. We’re able to fill in the gaps and piece together what we’re missing just from the behavior and changes that we observe. Mason’s family goes through many changes as well. His parents, (played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, both turning in the best performances of their careers) don’t just serve as support for Mason’s journey. At times, their story is just as compelling and crucial in shaping who Mason grows up to be, and vice versa. Arquette in particular stays with you, as seeing her attitude about motherhood change throughout the tale, perfectly encapsulated by bookending scenes at both ends of the film. She begins the film saying “I went from being somebody’s daughter to suddenly being someone’s mother,” but a mere 12 years later you see how her attitude on motherhood has changed as she looks to an uncertain future of no longer having caregiver be a part of her identity. One guesses that this woman probably doesn’t even remember a time when she wished to have a night unburdened by the presence of her children.
There are some tense years in Mason’s life, particularly when his mother marries an abusive alcoholic. But for the most part, Mason’s life is mild and uneventful. You keep bracing yourself for something big and possibly tragic to happen. We see Mason and his friends carelessly messing around near some sharp tools, he fires a shotgun for the first time after getting one as a gift, and all the children seem to narrowly avoid danger when the stepfather is drunk behind the wheel. But Linklater never makes the mistake of interrupting Mason’s journey with a life changing tragedy. If something horrible did happen to him, then this would be a movie about that event and it would diminish the moments that led up to such a thing. Mason is maturing and changing all the time, but no single event or instance ever defines him. No matter what we see him go through, we know he’s going to get past it and move on to something else, as we all do.
As I left the theater with a friend, we walked by the poster for the film we had just watched. There was Mason again, five years old, lying on the grass, and looking up at the clouds. It was shocking to once again see him as a child after we had come so far with him over the years. I felt like a parent, stumbling on an old photograph and was suddenly flooded with memories of an adolescence that I had just observed. And I began to wonder about Mason’s future as well. I don’t know if Linklater plans to revisit Mason in the way that he revisited Jesse and Celine in the “Before” movies, but whether he brings us another film in 15 years called “Manhood” or if it’s just left to my own imagination, I can’t wait to see what lies in store for this boy next.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes
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