Jul 17, 2014

    Model of cinematic realism

    THE first shot in Boyhood, Richard Linklater's tender, profound film, is of a cloudy sky. The second is of a boy staring up at the sky, one arm bent under his head, the other flung out straight on the ground.

    He's a pretty child with calm eyes, a snub nose and a full mouth. It's a face that you get to know and love because, even as this child is watching the world, you're watching him grow.

    From scene to scene, you see the curve of his jaw change, notice his thickening brows and see his arms opening to embrace the world.

    Filmed over 12 consecutive years, Boyhood centres on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who's six when the story starts and 18 when it ends.

    In between, he goes to school; argues with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter); and watches his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggle with work and men while paying the bills and moving from home to home.

    Every so often, her former husband Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) roars into the children's lives, initially in a 1968 GTO.

    It isn't a dad car (although it does belong to one: Linklater).

    It is, rather, the same model of masculine cool that rumbles through Two-Lane Blacktop, one of Linklater's favourite movies, and which he's slipped into films like Slacker and Dazed And Confused.

    Unforgiving observers may write Mason Sr off as a deadbeat, but, like Olivia, who sometimes lobs expletives at her unfazed children, he's deeply loving.

    These aren't movie parents with formulaic arcs and storybook solutions but characters whose honest, raw hurt and moments of casual grace carry the shock of the real.

    These are people you know, maybe people like you.

    The realism is jolting and so brilliantly realised and understated that it would be easy to overlook.

    In Boyhood, Linklater's inspired idea of showing the very thing that most movies either ignore or omit - the passage of time - is its impressive, headline-making conceit.

    Starting in 2002, he gathered his four lead actors each year for a three- to four-day shoot, working on the script as they went along.

    What emerged from those dozen years is a series of meticulously textured and structured scenes set to the rhythm of life. The structure is crucial.

    Linklater has long experimented with non-traditional narratives, from the baton-relay form of Slacker, in which he leaves one character to follow the next, to the peripatetic ramblings of his Before Sunrise trilogy.

    His films are sometimes mischaracterised as having no plot. This is perhaps because they may seem so when compared with aggressively incident-jammed mainstream movies.

    One of the fascinating things about Boyhood is that a lot happens - there are parties and fights, laughter and tears - but all these events take place in a distinctly quotidian register and without the usual film-making prodding and cues.

    Radical in its conceit, familiar in its everyday details, Boyhood exists at the juncture of classical cinema and the modern art film without being indebted to either tradition.

    It's a model of cinematic realism, and its pleasures are obvious yet mysterious.

    Even after seeing the film three times, I haven't fully figured out why it has maintained such a hold on me and why I'm eager to see it again.