Sundance 2014, Day Four: Boyhood is a one-of-a-kind experience

Sundance 2014, Day Four: Boyhood is a one-of-a-kind experience

How rare it is to encounter a film that feels genuinely new, so conceptually daring and innovative that it defies easy comparison. Unless I’m sleeping on some remarkable obscurity—and I’m sure the readers will let me know if I am—Boyhood (Grade: A-) feels like the first of its kind. The process in which this sprawling coming-of-age story was created is uniquely ambitious: Richard Linklater, the Texas slacker-poet who made Dazed And Confused, shot the film over a 12-year span, reconvening with his cast for a few days annually. As a result, two of the cast members—Ellar Coltrane as the boy of the title, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as his sister—literally grow up on-screen, changing over the course of the movie’s lengthy running time from grade-school-age actors to college-age ones. In a sense, that makes Boyhood a spiritual cousin to the director’s Before movies, which similarly chart the physical (and emotional) changes its performers undergo across a vast expanse of time. The difference here is that the audience experiences the changes faster than the actors/characters do: In one on-screen minute, Coltrane transforms from a prepubescent child to a lanky, deep-voiced adolescent.

Using changes in pop music, hairstyles, and technology to announce each temporal leap in time, Boyhood traces the sometimes tumultuous saga of Mason (Coltrane), a Texas youth who lives with his single mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater, delivering the film’s greatest performance), and only sees his father (Ethan Hawke) occasionally. The film charges forward through the years, as the family changes cities, hard-drinking stepfathers come and go, and both children inch towards adulthood. Some passages are eventful, like the one in which Mason’s mother is forced to abruptly yank her children out of an abusive household. Mostly, however, the movie zeroes in on seeming non-milestones: a camping trip, a baseball game, a high-school party. What Linklater is after here is a mundanely meaningful vision of growing up, a quarter of a life told in fragments. The seminal moments in our lives, the ones that shape who we’ll become, aren’t always the expected ones. Notably, there are no first kisses in Boyhood, just the stuff that happens before and afterwards.

As a narrative experiment, the movie is basically without precedent; seeing Coltrane and Linklater grow like weeds, physical hallmarks of childhood melting away every few minutes, is truly amazing. As drama, however, Boyhood can be a little patchy. Some shapelessness was always going to be a consequence of the filming method, possibly an intentional one. (Life, after all, fits no easy arcs or structures.) But some of the pockets of story are much more compelling than others, and the aimless nature of the plotting affords Linklater the opportunity to indulge in some of his less attractive habits, as when he has his characters go off on lengthy philosophical tears. (The writing talents of Hawke and Julie Delpy, who co-authored the last two Before films, are sometimes missed here.) As Boyhood reached for the three-hour mark, I occasionally found myself craving more of an organizing principle beyond the reoccurring portrayal of authority figures as opponents of creativity and happiness. A lot happens in the film, but not all of it seems to be serving a larger vision.

Then again, cohesiveness isn’t everything, especially in a movie attempting to make sense of the long journey from salad days to rites of passage. Ultimately, Boyhood’s methodology is so powerful, and powerfully interesting, that its flaws scarcely matter. The film unfolds in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds; conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars films. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) Boyhood isn’t perfect, but it’s an astonishing, one-of-a-kind accomplishment—and further proof that Linklater is one of the most adventurous filmmakers working today. (And on a personal note, the movie struck all kinds of chords for me; its on-screen family is eerily similar to my own. Let it never be said that I review movies in an emotional vacuum.)

Yesterday’s other big premiere at Sundance came adorned with a title that just as well could have been applied to the Linklater movie. Life Itself (Grade: B+) finds documentary figurehead Steve James chronicling the life and career of Roger Ebert, borrowing freely from the late critic’s memoir of the same name. There’s nothing unexpected about the movie, which covers all the major milestones, but that doesn’t make it any less moving. Ebert was instrumental in launching James’ career—he was one of Hoop Dream’s first and most fervent champions—so it’s no surprise that Life Itself plays as equal parts tribute and biography. As affecting as the hospital scenes are—James had nearly complete access to his subject during the final few weeks of his life— I found myself most moved by the reproduction of the writer’s own words, as when James highlights a profound (and thematically relevant) excerpt from Ebert’s Tree Of Life review. No two-hour documentary can truly do justice to the life and legacy of the world’s most famous film critic. But Life Itself is a fine attempt, funny and touching, with plenty of great new anecdotes and insightful reflections on this giant of the industry.

As an appetizer to these two auteur efforts, I also caught up with midnight selection The Babadook (Grade: B+), which some of my trusted peers have been raving about. Like last year’s best horror movie, The Conjuring, this Aussie creepshow provoked in me more admiration than raw terror. But it’s a fine spin on familiar fears, pitting a single mother and her troubled, fatherless child against a malevolent storybook monster called Mister Babadook. Personally, I found the pop-up book that introduces the villain so profoundly creepy that his gradual slide into the “real” world—pulling lots of the usual paranormal dick moves—just couldn’t compete. (If you’ve seen one shadowy specter scampering up the side of a wall, you’ve seen them all.) But The Babadook has a strong metaphorical undercut, using its monster as a manifestation of the misplaced blame the heroine puts on her child. (The father died while racing her to the hospital to give birth.) Long after I’ve forgotten the titular beastie, I’ll remember actress Essie Davis, in a remarkably intense performance, croaking deeply depressed resentments at her terrified onscreen offspring. The kid in Boyhood has it easy compared to this haunted, traumatized tyke.

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