True/False 2014: A nonfiction fest closes with a fictional film, Boyhood

True/False 2014: A nonfiction fest closes with a fictional film, Boyhood

My subsidized trip to True/False ended yesterday with the fest’s closing-night film, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (Grade: A-). As T/F cofounder David Wilson admitted to the crowd before the movie began, a nearly three-hour narrative feature might seem like a strange choice to conclude a festival of nonfiction films. Wilson’s justification for the programming was that, while technically a work of fiction, Boyhood had a production process more like that of a documentary. Linklater shot the movie over a period of 12 years, waiting for his actors to age and writing the script only as time passed. The results would be fascinating for this conceptual stunt alone. But as Boyhood observes the aging process, the film slowly turns profound. Everyone begins as a blank slate, it argues; it’s life and experience that make people into individuals.

Linklater, of course, has spent his career exploring the subject of time—not just in the Before trilogy, but in sources as varied as the long takes of Slacker and the nostalgia of Dazed And Confused (“I get older, they stay the same age”). Boyhood almost qualifies as a Before Sunrise prequel, examining the life cycle up until the age when Jesse and Céline first meet. Initially, it appears as though Boyhood might be more of a great experiment than a great movie. The early scenes feel oddly bland, perhaps because there was a risk of creating inconsistencies by defining the protagonist too much. When they began shooting in 2002, Linklater and company couldn’t have known what Mason (Ellar Coltrane) would be like as an adult.

The early scenes find Mason and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) dealing with the return of their father (Ethan Hawke) from Alaska. Their mother (Patricia Arquette) marries a psychology professor (Marco Perella), an alcoholic who quickly undergoes changes of his own. Boyhood eventually (and thankfully) sloughs off plot, giving itself over to anecdotes that seem pointed without ever quite seeming shaped. Mason camps with his Dad, canvasses for Obama with his sister, discovers girls, smokes cigarettes, and develops an artistic sensibility as a photographer.

In a sense, the proportioning of the film mirrors Mason’s growth as a person. If the largest percentage of screen time seems devoted to high school—romance and breakups, preparations for college, heart-to-hearts with Mom—that’s only a natural reflection of the way people become more interesting and adventurous as they age. It apparently happened for the star: After the screening, Coltrane told the audience he grew more enthusiastic about the filmmaking process around the time he turned 13, as he developed a greater appreciation for what he had been a part of. Linklater himself wasn’t on hand to answer questions, being nominated for an Oscar the same evening. At film’s end, much of the audience adjourned to True/False’s official awards-watching party, about a dozen statuettes and 18,651 montages after the show had started. Somehow, catching up with the rest of the Oscars through the rewind magic of DVR seems quintessentially Linklaterian.

An even weirder home movie, experimental animator Jodie Mack’s Dusty Stacks Of Mom: The Poster Project (Grade: B+) was the fest’s most avant-garde offering. But it might be a form of documentary, Mack explained, in the sense that it concerns the way pop culture keeps records of itself. On the occasion of the closing of her mother’s Florida poster store, Mack took detritus from her mom’s stockroom and turned it into a multimedia collage. Che Guevara is juxtaposed with Tony Montana; posters from 2001: A Space Odyssey are strikingly mirrored; colored paper is rolled, unrolled, and shredded to prismatic effect. As a soundtrack, to reinforce the theme of cultural appropriation, Mack asked musicians to compose new instrumentation to Dark Side Of The Moon. At Sunday’s showing, Mack sang along with her own parody lyrics (e.g., “Mommy” instead of “Money”). For now, Mack has chosen to perform her DSOM as a live event, but here’s hoping this deliriously offbeat yet accessible work will one day be shown with a recorded track.

Mack wasn’t the only filmmaker who looked homeward for a subject. A familiar figure to everyone in town (he inadvertently head-butted me last night when diving into a festival shuttle van), Robert Greene has a reputation as True/False’s biggest cheerleader. The editor of this year’s terrific Approaching The Elephant, Greene also had a feature of his own in the lineup. The title character of Actress (Grade: B-) is Greene’s neighbor Brandy Burre, who played Tommy Carcetti’s campaign strategist on The Wire, then went into semi-retirement to devote time to parenting. As the film begins, she seems to regret that decision. In what plays like a real-life Gena Rowlands slow burn, the movie watches as Burre attempts to reenter the field. The lines between feigned and genuine emotion are so blurred that it’s tempting to wonder—as someone asked at the Q&A—whether the film was intended as a sort of demo tape. Not exactly: Greene’s interest is in parsing various modes of acting. Actress ponders the extent to which Burre’s life is itself a kind of starring role, as well as the degree to which the power of performance can help her work through a tough situation. Come to think of it, Greene should have gone all out and titled his film True/False.

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