Director Richard Linklater has brought us a coming-of-age movie set in our time which must be one of the most patient, daring and, in a limited but notable sense, verisimilar movies ever made. It is a drama of the boyhood in Texas of a lower middle class boy, “Mason, Jr.,” from 2002 when he is seven to 2014 when he enters college, with the filming done at selected times over the full span of those twelve years with the same actors. The movie has been said to create a “time-lapse” effect.
The primary actors, all performing superbly, are: Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Jr; Patricia Arquette as his mother, Olivia; Ethan Hawke as his father, Mason, Sr; and Lorelei Linklater as his older sister, Samantha. Without exception, the supporting cast dazzles as well.
For Boyhood, its movie-making theory is of foremost interest. In outline, the theory brought this mode of operation: Linklater called his cast together briefly at selected times during the twelve years for a few days of filming. There was no detailed script for Boyhood; an open, very loose story framework was used in which Linklater and the actors collaborated anew at each filming session to improvise dramatic situations, scenes and dialog which seemed to be organic to the moment–to the changes in advancing age and maturing outlooks of the actor-characters, especially Mason, Jr and Samantha–as well as being coherent extensions from the previous passages of boyhood. When you think about the years that intervened between the filming of chapters in the story, and the likely ensuing states of mind of the refocused cast and production crew at the annual assemblies, such an approach to creating a story seems almost inevitable. Linklater, one can imagine, may well have thought of Time, especially as the fundamental condition for maturation, as the chief storyteller, the Elder narrating to those gathered yet again around the annual camp fire: it would show the way to a truthful and incisive understanding of one of the human dramas, boyhood (and by implication, the other passages in human experience as well). Accordingly, each actor should be a student of his or her own maturation. The line between the fictional character and the actor should be blurred and narrow, with the actor, having lived yet another year, possessing considerable authority as storytelling consultant. The director and the actors would tie together the individual introspections to weave a truthful and moving narrative which blends the fictional and the actual.
When you think of how movies are classically created–they are made over a compressed time period no matter how long the period dramatized in the storyline–you see that starting with a complete script is natural (though as many accounts of the making of movies confirm, more than one movie has started with less and no doubt no script escapes some revision as filming proceeds). The fundamental question about Boyhood is: what dramatic advantage, if any, does Linklater discover by his “time-lapse” method?
I sensed an answer and one central to any argument about ideas of storytelling.
Boyhood is a perceptive and sensitive drama of youth coming of age, as well as of adults aging, and ironically perhaps the latter is done more movingly than the former. Mason Jr’s story is finely comprised of classic episodes in growing up–school days, single parenting, bullies, bad advice from adults, sexual awakening, discovery of self, and so on. But: Would it have made much difference if the movie had been shot over a normal period and using different actors for the different stages and relying on a script composed beforehand?
It would certainly have created a different movie with a different effect! I think the issue is important. Perhaps the chief clue here is the sense of a certain passivity in the storytelling–and indeed in the very experience–of Boyhood. In the final seconds of his journey through boyhood, Mason, Jr. says that life seems to be a matter of being caught up in the present moment: that seems to be the final wisdom about interpreting fundamental human experience. Indeed, by the conclusion of his odyssey he has become an opportunistic and spontaneous art photographer, snapping pictures of features of the scenes of the moment. It is a growing characteristic of his adventure, this waiting to be captured in the instant. Put another way: In his boyhood, he is essentially a drifter.
The philosophical upshot? We drift through experience and are determined largely by the situations we encounter. Pawns. This is not to say that Boyhood is untruthful or that it is not touching in many moments. And certainly an overarching metaphor of the New World experience is the unmapped Open Road. We all drift for intervals and Linklater and his introspective cast have structured some poignant scenes out of that experience much worth undergoing in an art work and which sound the ring of truth. But I can’t help thinking that those brief annual meetings for further filming–and the intervening long months of “distraction” by other matters–created a stronger than usual sense of drifting.
Apropos: It is not really clear how and why Mason, Jr. forms his particular boyhood personality. Nor is it especially clear why other characters become the way they are. That they are as they are is affecting.
In the midst of the drifting, you find yourself looking for someone arrogant enough to declare some Accounting, some Explanation, some Purpose. The March of Time by itself does not do so. Finally, that the same actors are used throughout the twelve years seems a minor verisimilitude. You can get used to new actors playing the same-but-changing character over time. But you can’t get used to Drift as an absolute. In the end, you don’t accept it, mostly because you don’t believe it.