Monday, February 9, 2015

Oscars 2014: Boyhood

Boyhood (U.S., 2014) directed by Richard Linklater, 165 minutes
Six Oscar Nominations
Actor in a Supporting Role (Ethan Hawke)
Actress in a Supporting Role (Patricia Arquette)
Best Picture
Film Editing
Writing (Original Screenplay)

I, too, fell under the spell of this film when I saw it last summer, well before the Oscar buzz (she said boastfully). In retrospect, it is perhaps not as extraordinary as I first thought but I still love the premise and the commitment of the director and actors over this twelve year journey chronicling the real-time growth of this small boy from six to eighteen years of age. Shot for a few weeks every year for twelve years, we see the main character Mason Evans, Jr. grow up on screen before our eyes.

But it's not just about a boy growing up in Texas and his trials and tribulations. With a modest budget and fair to middling production values, it feels more like a documentary about a marriage after two people have parted acrimoniously but still try and remain good parents to their children. And sometimes failing. 

The film begins in 2002. Six-year-old Mason (the truly exquisite little boy Ellar Coltraneand his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the director) live with their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Olivia decides to moves the family to Houston so that she may attend the University of Houston to complete her degree. Mason's dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is loving but very much in the background of their lives and the parents do not get on well. 

The many faces of Mason
The parents often fight during the course of the film. The petty animosity is realistic - they are so estranged that any small thing triggers pointless arguments and mirrors so many modern divorces (and marriages). Hawke's acting is often criticized and he, as a person derided, and I am unsure why. Do his aspirations sometimes exceed his talents? Perhaps, but not here. As an actor he dares to take on Shakespeare, TV series, highly commercial films. He is perfectly cast, as the imperfect but loving father trying to do his best.

By 2005, when Mason is nine, Olivia has married Bill Welbrock, her Houston University professor (Marco Perella) who has two children from a previous marriage. On the surface, this may seem like a positive move for Olivia and the family. But Olivia supports Bill's strict rules as a parent - which include chores for the children and forcing Mason to cut his long hair much against his will. Bill is also an abusive alcoholic - he assaults Olivia and threatens the children. Olivia soon flees, files for divorce and the family moves to San Marcos, TX. 

Olivia now teaches psychology at a college and makes another disastrous choice in moving in with Jim, a disturbed Afghanistan/Iraq War vet who suffers from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Do we not all know people like this - smart, strong women who consistently choose the wrong man? Arquette manages to portray Olivia realistically and retain our sympathy after she puts herself and her children in danger's path. She is capable, talented, smart but still makes very poor choices with regards to men. Eventually Olivia leaves Jim as well after he aggressively confronts Mason about coming home late one night. 

By his fifteenth birthday, Mason is becoming a young adult experimenting with marijuana and alcohol and taking an interest in girls. He also becomes interested in photography. Coltrane, as an actor, seems to lose a bit of his sparkle even through he is an attractive young man; that sweetness that made him so lovable in the earlier scenes has dissipated a little. Is it the deadening effect of teenagehood when so many teens appear lacklustre, bored, uninterested in those around them or is Coltrane just a poor actor? 

Cleverly, Linklater does not hide the adolescent bad skin or piercings nor the weight gain and wrinkles that Mason's parents gain. 

At seventeen, in 2013, Mason is in his senior year facing a difficult breakup with his girlfriend Sheena, who has cheated on him. But besides the teenage angst, his future is promising. Mason wins the silver medal in a state photography contest and receives a college scholarship. At his new school, Sul Ross State University in Alpine, TX Mason moves into his dorm and meets his new roommate and some new friends including Nicole. When they go hiking together later, Nicole and Mason talk about "seizing the moment" and Mason tells her they are always in the moment.

The music has been selected from each year of Mason's life and suits the mood of each year perfectly. 

Linklater has expressed sadness that the project is at an end after twelve years and we feel it too. Mason's adventure has become our own ... as children who have become adults and as adults who have had children and seen them grow. 

I still retain the image of Arquette and Hawke sitting together at the Golden Globes, their hands touching, eagerly awaiting the announcement regarding best film (which Boyhood won) and Coltrane seated quietly in the middle. Perfect. 

Hawker, Coltrane, Arquette, Linklater

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