Thursday, November 20, 2014

Child in time: thoughts on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

“I don’t want to live my life through a screen,” says 17-year-old Mason Jr in a late scene in Richard Linklater’s exquisite new film Boyhood. Within the narrative, Mason – a sensitive young man with an artistic temperament – is fretting about the pressures of staying visible on Facebook and other social media; that these things now seem to validate your existence, and he wants to switch off from them. But at an extra-narrative level too, the line is resonant – because young Ellar Coltrane, who plays the role, has lived so much of his life on the screen created by this remarkable project.*** Though a scripted fiction film, Boyhood was made in installments over 12 years, capturing Coltrane’s own growth from age seven to age 18. In the finished work, when Mason speaks about how futures can seem pre-ordained, how it can feel like the path ahead has been mapped out, one hears an echo of the actor who, as a child barely comprehending the scale of what he was getting into, became part of Linklater’s grand vision.

Time, and what it does to people and their relationships, is one of the big themes of Linklater’s cinema – most famously demonstrated in the three “Before” films made over 18 years with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – but even by his standards Boyhood was a risky experiment that could easily have crumbled in the execution, or worse, have come off as one giant gimmick. An important difference between watching Hawke and Delpy age over the course of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight and watching Coltrane grow up in Boyhood is that the latter was so young and vulnerable when this project began. In this interview he says he doesn’t even remember his first meeting with his director, and barely has any memory of the first 2-3 years of shooting. One might say that the concept of “performance” (which implies self-awareness to begin with) doesn’t apply in the normal sense to his early scenes.

To a degree, that is true for all child actors, and there is a danger of making the story of Boyhood’s filming sound more dramatic than it was. From what I know, though scenes were shot every year, each schedule took only a few days or weeks; Coltrane wasn’t like a willing version of Jim Carrey’s Truman in The Truman Show, under a camera’s scrutiny for every minute of his growing-up years. He continued to live his own life, as the other cast members did. Still, it couldn’t have been a quite normal childhood (whatever the ideal of “normal childhood” is). And though Boyhood is a lovely, absorbing film on its own terms, while watching it I kept thinking about the effect it must have had on the young actor.

What is it like to be the subject of such an experiment from an early age? How does your own (nascent) self get shaped by and subsumed in the character you are playing, and how does the role affect your own future real-life decisions? In his “young adult” scenes, Coltrane projects such a calm, mature personality it is hard to imagine that in real life he might be a different, more boisterous person. In his interviews too, he sounds like Mason, and some of his own interests – in photography, for instance – were absorbed into the film’s script. When Linklater picked the six-year-old all those years ago, he must have seen the seeds of the qualities he wanted for his protagonist. But could the very process of being filmed every year also have contributed to making Coltrane more inward-looking, more understanding of creative processes? And is it significant that though Coltrane cooperated with his director unfailingly, year after year, Linklater’s extroverted daughter Lorelei (who plays Mason’s sister Samantha) told her dad at some point that she didn’t want to participate anymore; couldn’t he kill her character off?

Watching the transitions in Mason’s (or Ellar’s) features over the film’s three hours – dreaminess and reticence shifting into something like confidence, a sense of a young person becoming comfortable in his skin (without losing his vulnerability) – I began free-associating, thinking of other films and books. The Antoine Doinel films made by Francois Truffaut, for example, in which Jean-Pierre Leaud played the central character from age 12 on, beginning with The 400 Blows and ending with Love on the Run 20 years later. Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table, in which a boy’s three-week ship journey between Sri Lanka and England becomes a symbol for “the floating dream of childhood”, the vast ocean unmarked by milestones. (In Boyhood, Mason Jr’s pre-teen life seems to go by like a dream, with people and houses flitting in and out of sight, and around half the film deals with his life between age 16 and 18.) Or even the strange career of child actors like Mayur, who played the young version of Amitabh Bachchan so often that by the time he did it in Laawaris – as a gangly 16-year-old – he had all the expressions and movements down pat, even in the little jig he does while listening to “Mere Angne Mein” on the radio; he was performing in a pre-constructed mould.

These thoughts, though, were secondary to the experience to watching Boyhood unfold at its leisurely pace. Like much of Linklater’s other work, it is driven by naturalistic conversation and by a disavowal of clearly set-up dramatic situations for the characters to respond to in familiar ways. There are a few such situations here (which life doesn’t have them?) – a drunk stepfather terrifying his wife and kids at a dining table, a sweet old geezer from the Bible belt (Mason’s dad’s new father-in-law) gifting the boy a shotgun and assuming that everyone will be happy to go to Sunday church together – but they aren’t underlined. The obvious awkwardness felt by Mason, Samantha and their dad about the overt religiosity of the stepmother’s family doesn't lead to a “confrontation” or even a brief teenage outburst; instead the tension is diffused in a charming little moment when the siblings and their father whisper to each other about this “God thing” and the stepmom calls out jovially from a distance “I can hear you!”

Such is the “verite” nature of the film in any case that the dramatic moments aren’t presented in terms of a clear beginning, middle and end. Exhibit: a scene where Mason and Samantha and their step-siblings cycle up to their house and see Mason’s mother lying awkwardly on the ground while her husband yells at her. We don’t see the start of the fight or see him hitting her, we arrive right in the middle of a messy situation, disoriented, slowly piecing together what must have happened. This is slice-of-life storytelling at its sparest. And at the end here is Mason/Ellar, on the verge of being free from the screen at last, liberated and unsure in equal measure, looking ahead to a future that is no longer pre-ordained.


*** As David Thomson noted in another context, here are two opposing – but also complementary – meanings of “screen”: one involves concealment, the other exhibition.


  1. The unsentimentality of the film reminded me of what Pink says in Dazed & Confused (which was, all things considered, a more romantic vision of childhood): "All I'm saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life - remind me to kill myself." This is as clear-eyed a vision of childhood as American cinema has ever produced. Was also wondering whether there may not be too many degrees of separation between this and Tree of Life.

    Note for Linklater nuts: The clerk in the convenience store who sells the kids alcohol is played by the same guy who sells the underage protagonist alcohol in D&C.

    1. Well, sure, but what about those demented individuals (I know quite a few) who do think of their childhood/school years as the best of their lives and have genuinely rosy memories. Can't disregard their experience. Also: I wouldn't unqualifiedly celebrate the film's unsentimentality or lack of "drama". It works perfectly for these characters, sure, but what if Mason were a more demonstrative/volatile personality? The Bible-and-shotgun scenes might have played out very differently then, perhaps in a way that some of us would consider stereotyped.

      Also, just from watching Lorelei's (very few) adolescent scenes, I like the idea proposed by a commenter elsewhere, that Linklater could simultaneously have prepared a film called Girlhood, by shooting extra scenes with his daughter and showing some of the same events from a different viewpoint. There might have been a few more tantrums and explosive behaviour in that one!

      Should make a list of some of the best American films about childhood. The Yearling and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn come instantly to mind. Or maybe it's more challenging to look at films that aren't based on a novel...which was that one about the kid and his sled, who gets taken away from his parents and eventually becomes a newspaper magnate?

    2. ha ha ha ha ha, I loved this statement, "Well, sure, but what about those demented individuals (I know quite a few) who do think of their childhood/school years as the best of their lives". To my mind, those demented individuals are the majority (more than 90% perhaps). I wonder how folks would like to go back to childhood when they are made to write exams, ask parents for money, seek permissions and for everything they say they are told to shut up citing their age.

  2. Didn't phrase it well, but meant that Boyhood, not what Pink said, was the clear eyed vision etc. I must admit that I prefer unsentimental readings of childhood - 400 Blows, Cria Cuervos, Kes - to the ones which seem rosier.

    It is interesting to imagine Girlhood, with Lorelei in the lead, which would've been a very different film. Or Motherhood - a kitchen sink drama? Fatherhood - something like Jerry Maguire?

  3. This seems like a very interesting experiment, filmed over 12 years. In later years, childhood does seem like a dream and that makes me wonder how so many writers wrote books of their growing up years with seemingly accurate descriptions of houses, lanes, trees and other physical objects and even emotions. But then they say great art is great memory. Funnily, when I realised a movie by this name is being released, I thought it must be based on Coetzee's novel 'Boyhood'.

  4. Am a huge fan of Richard Linklater's "Before" series and also Boyhood now. Loved reading about your thoughts on the later.