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'Boyhood' proves low and slow isn't just for barbecue

by Dave Cathey Modified: August 24, 2014 at 10:50 pm •  Published: August 23, 2014
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When Richard Linklater wasn’t watching movies or waxing existential during his own boyhood in the Texas Hill Country, he mustiv’e been eating a lot of good barbecue. How else can you explain a film that adheres so closely to the credo of legendary Texas pit masters, which is to develop deep, profound flavor with patience and uncompromising focus.

Upon my recent return from the parts depicted in Linklater’s “Boyhood,” I saw the film under suspiciously karmic circumstances as described here.

Just a week after an invigorating trip and six days of brutal return into the soul-grinding reality of middle-age and all its bruising travails, respite was waiting tucked in the back corner of the Quail Springs AMC’s No. 14 theater. One-hundred and sixty-six minutes later, my son, wife and I left heartened by art. High art.

Linklater’s elegant magnum opus,  love letter to Texas culture, was filmed over 12 years using the same cast. It depicts year-by-year stages in the life of Mason Jr., portrayed by Ellar Coltrane, the youngest of two children, his older sister portrayed with aplomb by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater, in a broken home. The film seamlessly sews together a patchwork of small, medium and large family moments as the characters mature physically and emotionally, dodging life’s chaotic salvos

Ellar Coltrane was grown by the time "Boyhood" opened in theaters this year.
Ellar Coltrane was grown by the time "Boyhood" opened in theaters this year.

while chasing various dreams. That’s pretty much it.

Try pitching that premise to a corporate Hollywood stooge with a car more expensive than most houses.

Linklater not only found a way to fund and cast the project, but sculpted a film the likes of which American cinema has never seen. If “Boyhood” is derivative of any films, it’s only to his own work. If you’ve watched Linklater’s films you’ll recognize many of its attributes and many of the actors. This is a quantum leap in unveiling the alternate universe of Texas of his own making in films like “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” “Bernie,” and the shorts from his early career.

In “Boyhood,” Linklater expresses all the existential angst, warm-hearted philosophy and off-beat humor woven through those films in one tightly knit cinematic mosaic.

To weave it, he took the same approach fellow Austinite Aaron Franklin takes in producing perfect brisket – taking his time, using the proper tools and leaving compromise to the folks in a hurry to accumulate wealth no one will remember.

If you’re a Linklater fan, you will recognize how all his Alt-Texas universe films could be viewed like a Wiki. David Blackwell plays a clerk in a large liquor store who could be the same character he portrayed working in a smaller liquor store in “Dazed and Confused.” (Matthew McConaughy has to be kicking himself for not making himself available to take part when he was in the Romantic Lead phase of his career so the legend of Wooderson could’ve been expanded.)

If you’ve read reviews about it, you know critics adore it. No movie I know of with as many reviews attached holds a 100 rating on Metacritic. Read through the plaudits and you’ll wonder if the adjective factory is running low on superlatives.

What really strikes me is how the film inspired some critics to share more than how many stars it deserved (as many as possible) or which direction it pointed their thumb (up, way, way, way up – almost off the knuckle).

So positive have the reviews been, it inspired one critic to write a well-reasoned essay on how this much praise was dangerous for criticdom.

The film inspired Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday to write Linklater made her a better film critic. David Edelstein wrote, ”I’m not saying ‘Boyhood’ is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now, and it’s different.” Our own Nathan Poppe related his own struggles with boyhood in his review.

True art digs deep into us and releases our better angels.

“Boyhood” isn’t a film about anything other than all of us. Those who’ve ever parented will be helpless to its wiles. Teens will relate implicitly. Who knows, it might even help bridge the generation and communication gap.

But don’t expect anything to explode, a hero who burps obligatory ironic turns of phrase before dispatching cartoon-character baddies or anything resembling mainstream narrative structure.

Once the projector bursts through the dark and we see the world from young MJ’s eyes the end of the story is present, wrapping itself around us in familiarity and carefully seasoned with raw sugar rather than refined.

Simple, relatable, multifaceted characters impose on our patience before revealing that the story of this 166-minute film is all in the previous 165 minutes. By the time young Mason Jr. sits on a rock, staring into the Chisos Basin with a smile warm as the sunset he’s staring into, the frames of film previously projected before us have become a fresh, full, living memory. Probably because we’ve all sat on that rock and thought those thoughts, absurdly romanticizing adulthood while still capable of wiping away the broken promises, dumb choices, and heartbreak of adolescence with one sweeping burst of hope – the kind that comes only from the smile of a pretty girl (or a cute boy, if you prefer). Meanwhile, younger viewers might see it as affirmation that everything is going to be okay. And it is, if you show courage in the choices you make.

For a moment, before the lights go up, Linklater has done something far more difficult and rewarding than can be achieved by blowing up a shark, rallying the troops to victory, an unexpected plot twist, or avenging the death of an endearing character. Two hours and 46 minutes after the opening chords of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” the auditorium is rapt by a singular moment when all that has happened before in this truncated, fictional life comes spilling over them like a mass ice-bucket challenge with no symphonic blast from John Williams or Bill Conti. The wonder in MJ’s eyes as he scans the sky as a six-year-old matches the wonder in his eyes as an 18-year-old college freshman. In between those two gazes are the moments where his boyhood begins and ends and the film’s empathic foundation is carefully poured. As psychic voyeurs we are helpless to forget to leave our feelings in the auditorium. Walking out of “Boyhood” is like walking into that moment you realize an unrealized dream was the answer to your dreams. The only neatly tied bow is the sum of its parts.

The only experience I can relate it to was reading and rereading (and rereading and rereading – I think I’ll go reread it again real quick) the final pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude.”

But even that magical mystery masterwork relied on storytelling dynamism never before published while “Boyhood” plays like a sweet, old-fashioned melody you swear you’ve heard but can’t believe you don’t remember. And when it’s over, it echoes and replays in your mind. I reckon it won’t end until I go back to see it again.

Only one moment in the run of the film choked me with emotion (delivered by Patricia Arquette in the final scene of her pitch-perfect performance), but I have found it virtually impossible to discuss “Boyhood” without tears coming to my eyes. (Even in writing this post, I find I have to take breaks from fogging up these damned readers I now have to wear to see the screen!)

“Boyhood” is strategically spare on overt sentimentality within the confines of the narrative, but I don’t know if a film has ever made me feel so sentimental. Hell, I’m not sure a home movie ever made me feel this sentimental.

The film flows like an effervescent river, popping with little memories and reminders not possible without the film’s unique, fluid position in time. There is no rising or falling action, just a steady stream leading to a waterfall that feeds into a moment of clarity.

The Easter eggs are everywhere but mostly unintentional.

Like Charlie Sexton’s appearance as Mason Sr.’s ne’er-do-well roommate, Jimmy, who eventually makes it as a working musician — a fitting role for the legendary guitarist who played it too close to the edge as a teenaged wunderkind but found steady work with Bob Dylan.

When Mason Sr., portrayed brilliantly by Ethan Hawke, takes the kids to a Houston Astros game at Minute Maid Park in August of 2005 a pair of diverging fates cross paths with the narrative. While Linklater fictionalized the result of the game, any baseball fan who watches the scene knows the adulation Mason Sr. has for Roger Clemens will be “misremembered.” In the same scene, young outfielder Jason Lane hits a home run, provoking Mason Sr. into hysteria and high-fives all around. Absurdly obsessive baseball fans like me know Lane, too, has an interesting journey ahead. By the time Mason Jr. is heading west for college, Lane will have fallen short of the expectations Houston fans pinned on him but refused to give up. Today, Lane is a 37-year-old pitcher, who also acts as occasional designated hitter for the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League. Earlier this season, he made it back to the major leagues on the mound – a baseball career almost as rare as a film like “Boyhood.”

While Linklater avoids sending Mason Jr. or any of the characters down Joseph Campbell’s standard course, he inadvertently toddles down the path himself. In Campbell’s monomyth, “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In a culture suffocating under the massive, bloated Armani-clad buttocks of corporate America, Linklater has taken the hero’s journey on behalf of not only filmmakers who aspire to art but artists as a whole. His cinematic self-expression is an arrow flung into the soft underbelly of the fire-breathing money-mongers who control the film industry, dictating a strict diet of cost-effective mediocrity when they’re not coughing up cinematic hairballs cloaked in pyrotechnics.

Linklater’s ability to capture this unimaginably satisfying work of art is more heroic than the combined works of Marvel Studios. The 53-year-old Texan has created a game-changing film, but it won’t breed a generation of copy-catting like “Pulp Fiction.” The legacy of “Boyhood” will be more profound. Tarantino’s fixation has always been and will always be movies. Linklater’s “Boyhood” is an affront to the corporate takeover of art as a whole.

As I wrote previously, my reaction to the film is linked to a little fandango I took earlier this month, including a concert by the recently retired Austin band What Made Milwaukee Famous. Among my favorite songs by the band is a quiet little tune about tolerance called, “The Other Side.”

When the band played at VZD’s last year, a kid from the humble crowd asked lead singer Mike Kingcaid if they played requests. Kingcaid’s answer was a hesitant, “Sometimes.”

To Kingcaid’s obvious relief, the kid didn’t shout “Play ‘Freebird’ (Only I do that anymore). Instead, he asked if they would play “The Other Side.” With the rest of the band at the bar, Kingcaid hopped back on stage with his acoustic guitar and belted out a heart-rending version. I’ll never forget it. A lyric near the end of the song says it best about the auteur of a film that will doubtlessly go down in the annals of film as one of the finest expressions of cinematic art in history.

Life is what you choose,

Love is what you make,

Success is based on chances that you take.

Well done, Mr. Linklater. I’m glad I was alive to experience your film, and the experience made me glad to be alive. (And I don’t hold it against you that you’ve become a vegetarian — hell, I married one!)

You can still catch “Boyhood” at the AMC Quail Springs, check here for showtimes.

by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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