Tuesday, December 9, 2014

BOYHOOD might be this year's best film

It happens occasionally that the story behind the making of a film is so compelling and unusual that it completely overshadows the film itself. This sort of happened last year with ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, a film that was remarkably shot covertly in Disneyworld and Disney Land by some ambitious filmmakers who were able to disguise their equipment and cast. It was daring guerrilla filmmaking at its finest, pulling off a shoot in a location known for its Draconian hand. Alas, the film's story itself wasn't quite as compelling and once the novelty of the location wore off what remained was a so-so film. That still doesn't take away from the feat the filmmakers pulled off, though.

So I don't blame anyone who sees all the praise BOYHOOD has been getting and cynically suspects that it's instigated by the film's unusual production. Beginning in 2002, director Richard Linklater assembled his cast each year for a week of filming that lasted across 12 years. The objective: tell the story of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from age five to age seventeen. It was an ambitious idea, requiring investors to sink in money for over a decade without seeing a return, never minding the gamble that all the principal actors would remain alive and committed for a project that would span more years than most TV shows.

When I was in college, a friend of mine and I had this idea we occasionally kicked around. As fans of BACK TO THE FUTURE and its sequels, we loved the idea of making a time travel movie, but spinning it a different way. How could would it be, we thought, if we made it a story about someone coming back in time from 2012 to 2002? Imagine if we shot the "past" portions of the film starring our then current selves and then ten years later, returned to shoot the "future" versions, using green screen technology to put the two sides together in a Back to the Future part II-like way? We never really figured out much of a story beyond that, but every now and then the idea came up in conversation as a "wouldn't that be cool if..." sort of thing.

Linkletter's project was even harder, as the story he chose seemed to demand a looser narrative that would likely be adjusted and refined over the years while in progress. I'm sure he had signposts in mind along the way, but he had to be far from knowing exactly how he'd end the film, or even how he'd shoot it.

I saw BOYHOOD a while back and have struggled to find something different to add to the conversation. It's a very well-done, ambitious idea. I notice that many reviews - like this moving one from Drew McWeeny - use the film as a launching point for one's own self-reflection. It's definitely a film that provokes that kind of introspection. You can't watch young Mason grow up and not think about what it was like to live through your own milestones. Even if you're prepared for that emotional wallop, the film can still blindside you.

For me, that shock came early. I, of course, knew the film's conceit going into it, that we'd live 12 years in this boy's life. Then came an early music cue in the first segment, Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun." In my memory, that's a song very linked with my final weeks of college and my first summer out of school. It was like a kick in the balls - "This kid went from first grade to graduation in all the time I've been out in L.A!" In my head, my post-graduate time couldn't possibly have been that long, but here was the proof. It was like getting a one-two punch of nostalgia and reflection - thinking back on my own childhood AND realizing all the time I've burned in "adulthood."

Even so, much of the emotion that the film provokes is genuine and not manipulated. The film's approach gives it the freedom to abandon some of the more rigid set-up, pay-off rules of the three-act structure. Characters drop in and drop out without their stories being brought to dramatic conclusions, which makes it feel more like real life. Sometimes we just drift apart from people in our lives and there's no neat closure years later. Even mini-set-ups don't lead to expected payoffs. There's a point where Mason is warned about texting while driving. In any other film, that would be there to set-up a later scene where his phone distracts him and causes a crash. Thus, when he later drives with his girlfriend and shows her his phone, we're primed to expect a crash that never comes.

The filming approach also lead to some unintentional irony years later. In a sequence set in (I think) 2008, Mason and his father (Ethan Hawke) camp out together and chat about STAR WARS. They wonder "Do you think they'll ever make more of them?" In 2008, that seemed incredibly unlikely, so hearing their speculations takes on a new level of humor with the knowledge that Disney is already working on a third trilogy and a series of standalone films.

Though young (and eventually not-quite-so young) Ellar is rather good as Mason, Patricia Arquette rightly deserves all the praise she's been getting for how she evolves Mason's mother over the years. She's the strength in Mason's life and we get a sense of the sacrifices she makes to give her two children a good home life. The most harrowing example of this is the abusive marriage to an alcoholic professor that she finds herself in. The film perhaps gives one or two strong tells before revealing the abuse in a truly unsettling scene.

Linkletter's staging of this moment really stuck with me. Mason returns home to a partially open garage door. We can only see inside through a three-foot gap from ground to door. Mason's mother falls into frame, crying as her husband berates her. Mason has walked into the middle of a fight and sees his terrified mother, beaten and screaming while the drunkard continues his threats. We don't see the stepfather's face here, though - only his legs - and somehow that makes him even more fearsome. It reminded me of how adults are sometimes depicted in children's cartoons, shown in incomplete fashion to underscore how massive they appear to children at that age. It's a moment that proves more unsettling than a more conventionally staged outburst later in the film.

I find it interesting that once Mason's mother takes her children out of that house, we never revisit the abusive ex-husband or the two children who were step-siblings to Mason and his sister for a couple years. A more conventional film might have brought the step-siblings back for an emotional moment at graduation, but that could have easily felt false here. We're left to wonder "What happened to them? Did they get out of that situation? Did they turn out okay?"

There are other nice touches along the way. Notice how the qualities that initially attract Mason's girlfriend to him eventually become the very traits that push her away. Take in the gradual maturation of Mason's father. Most of all, notice how the moment's that serve as the film's ending could just as easily be a new story's beginning. More than anything, this is a movie that makes you feel. For both that, and the pure ambition behind the endeavor, it might be this year's best film.

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