(Felt like a day from my old Toronto Film Festival days, watching both BOYHOOD and MAPS TO THE STARS in Tokyo rep houses. Here's a little something about BOYHOOD, with a look at the Cronenberg film in a few days to come...)
About halfway through its almost three-hour running time, I realized that another title for BOYHOOD might as well be GROWN-UPS. (Alas, Adam Sandler pre-swiped it for his comedies.) I was expecting (and received) a moving examination of what it might mean to grow up; I wasn't looking to find a film that was almost as much about adults and their ways. Almost every scene in the movie features either a) children watching adults as they amble around what they claim as their lives, or b) adults giving kids advice, in the form of insults, or shouts, or genuine expressions of deep love and concern. It's a two-way street, this movie is, and if the boy at the centre rarely, if ever, meets his counterpart halfway, well, that's kids for you. They do their own thing, with others (if they're lucky) nudging them some of the time. What a spirit this film wields.
Of course, the danger of naming a movie BOYHOOD is that it almost invites the viewer to watch it as some kind of statement as such. (Maybe a more apt, specific moniker would have been THIS BOY'S LIFE, but, alas, that title too is long-ago took.) Similar to Judd Apatow's THIS IS FORTY, by using a thematically grandiose title like this one, you run the danger of folks seeing the film and thinking: "Well, that wasn't MY boyhood, motherfucker. Speak for yourself, prick." And one could argue that there is a certain kind of, for lack of a better phrase, 'generic experience' going on here -- a range of childhood, adolescent, and young adult encounters involving bikes and nudie mags and school crushes and enforced haircuts and first-time drinking and awkward break-ups that almost seem as if they were plucked from a Young Adult book at random. There is a frequent here-we-go-with-the-next-common-experience-we-can-all-empathize-with element at play.
However, having said that: Who am I fucking kidding? Those commonplace events were the moments that resonated with me the most, and I can't deny that I felt myself getting choked up a few times. Laying awake in bed while overhearing your parents argue? Check. Life as a dishwasher? Check. Memories of meeting one's university roommate for the first time? Check. Check. Check. You got me, Linklater. Not always, or even often, but enough. More than enough.
Besides, what makes the movie work so well as cinema is not so much the narrative incidents as such but time, damnit, time. The manipulation of it, in cinematic tersm. The way that the movie allows a single life to unfold without anything extraneous. You quickly get sucked into the ordinary aspects of 'life', and you see kids grow up inexplicably fast, and you hear Ethan Hawke's voice get noticeably, audibly gravellier and growlier, and you suddenly very soon realize that there's truly no going back. No reststop on this train, kiddies. Linklater cleverly doesn't drape a 'story' onto this somehow simultaneously leisurely-yet-rocket-fast look at a life as it's lived, but there's something going on here, a linkage of sorts.
I mentioned earlier this idea of 'adults', with a capital 'A', and what I found most surprisingly moving about the film was my own dawning realization that children are mostly just pawns. Only at the end of the film does the protagonist finally get to do something just for himself; previously, his life (and this movie) was filled with non-stop, 'hey-bud' or 'you-fuck' adult interjections. And while some of these were drunken and obscene, there was this gentler thing going on, a continuous thread of groups of older people trying to help this kid out. Giving him advice. Hoping he listens. Stressing what's important. And I would imagine that teenagers might let a lot of those scenes kind of drift over their heads as they stare at the screen, like the scent of stale buttered popcorn slowly drifting towards those bright red exit-lights, but as somebody who's kinda/sorta tried to dish out some of those same types of awkward-advice speeches to youngsters in my life over the past bunch of years, I found their place and presence in this film very moving and daring in their plain-spoken goodness. The kid, bless his heart, was not eye-rollingly rude, but he just mostly took it all in with silence (or else with the odd short retort), as we usually did, as all young people do. Yet we see mothers, fathers, stepfathers, photography teachers, part-time-job-bosses, friends of the family, all chipping in now and then to shell out some good words. (Or at least well-intentioned ones.) The movie is just as much a wide-eyed, warts-and-all study of how desperately hard adults try to save (or just grab) the kids that inhabit their lives as it is about a boy trying to learn how to be a young man.
What makes the movie work so marvellously well is its leisurely, continuous examination of this bizarrely temporal co-existence, the strange nowhereland that adults and children co-exist in at different (but paradoxically simultaneous) points in their lives. And the main actor, Ellar Coltrane, who was photographed for a few weeks for each of twelve years, centres everything in place because he wasn't much of an actor at all. (This is my theory.) This is a compliment. The film centres him and Loreli Linklater (who is the director's daughter) with a platoon of old pros, but it takes a child-amateur to show much 'acting' actors do. They're all excellent, the real actors, but Coltrane kind of just moseys along, as we all do through life, and he doesn't really 'steal' every scene; he just lets himself get sort of mugged. Yes, true, he starts to philosophically pontificate a bit when he hits his mid-teens, but hey -- that's what teens do. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are both fantastic, but they're acting, and they know it, and we know it; Coltrane for the entire length of the film gives off the nonchalant vibe of a kid who doesn't know that a camera is there, doesn't know that we're watching, probably could not give a shit. That's what cements him so firmly into the vibe as the years pick up their pace; the adults are awfully dramatic, but for him, it's just life. Kids don't know any better. Let everyone else handle all that drama.
The most revolutionary aspect of the film is everything that we don't see on the screen, namely its shooting history -- a twelve year span of time, with actors imperceptibly aging between twelve-month shoots-- but in the end, like all movies, it must ultimately fall or fly as a movie, period. This one often soars. It's been awhile since I've been this engrossed in a film. Scene after scene made me laugh or almost cry when thinking of (dis)similar moments in time from my own puny life. Yet I don't think what happens on-screen itself is necessarily all that new. There is a WONDER YEARS element that must be acknowledged. Yes, it lacks the false sentiment, and goopy life-lessons, but in the end, thematic and narrative pyrotechnics aside, it's still just a film about aging, about dealing with the pain and joys of growing up and leaving home as we all did (and still do). It's enormously clever, even brilliant, in the narrative gaps it embraces, the bullshit 'plot' it eschews and spits out with an almost crazy abandon, but all the lunatic-hype surrounding the film makes it sound as if the space-time continuum itself has been transformed with each celluoid frame. This is a movie. That's all. A movie. And, like all movies, it's actually nothing like life, but boy by the end does it come pretty damn close.