Richard Linklater has proved himself a master of capturing on film something that seems very much like real life. In his Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight), a sequence of separately shot movies spaced nine years apart, he depicted a love story that grew along with its characters. Now, in the new Boyhood, he extends that approach to create a picture even richer in the details of human experience. This really is a movie unlike any other.
Boyhood was assembled over the course of 12 years, with Linklater calling the main actors back each year to spend a few days adjusting the script and shooting the picture's next installment. The result of this risky gambit (what if one or more of the performers had been unavailable for one or more years?) is a movie that draws us deeply into its story, holding us absorbed as the characters evolve in resonant ways and we watch the gathering years pass slowly across the actors' faces.
The central character is a boy named Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, a Texas actor with a modest film résumé (among the four indies in which he previously appeared is Linklater's 2006 Fast Food Nation). Coltrane is a recessive performer – his features don't really express much—but that's useful here in playing a character who keeps most of his feelings locked inside.
We meet Mason at the age of seven (Coltrane's age when the movie began shooting). He's lying on a patch of grass, looking up at the sky, thinking…well, insert your own dimly recalled childhood thoughts. Mason and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) are living with their divorced mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), in a bland Texas suburb. Olivia is ready to resume her pursuit of goals she had put on hold for marriage and motherhood, and she knows that with two kids it's going to be hard. Olivia's absent ex-husband, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is an in-and-out presence in their lives, drifting around in quest of a fading dream of making it as a musician and songwriter.
The movie has no structure in the traditional sense – there's no three-act progression toward a dramatic climax that will wrap up the story in a tidy bundle. There are only events – struggles and setbacks and bad life choices. Olivia uproots the kids to move to Houston; she wants to go back to university to study psychology, hoping one day to become a teacher. Mason and Samantha aren't happy about this, being yanked away from the only life they've known – their school, their friends. Mason, an indifferent student (he failed first grade), doesn't say much, but Samantha is voluble: "We'll never like Mama as much for making us move," she says – a kiddie wisecrack that nevertheless stings.
In Houston, Olivia takes up with one of her professors, a charming single dad named Welbrock (Marco Perella). Before long, they marry – and in a long, harrowing segment of the film we see their union collapse into nightmare.
By this point, Mason, Sr. is back on the scene. Whatever his shortcomings, he's determined to be a good father. He takes the kids bowling; they go to ball games and drive around in his cool GTO. He always buys them gifts, and semi-engages them in rote divorced-dad banter. Then one day he calls a halt. Pulling over to the side of the road during one of their outings, he announces that he doesn't want to be just another biological father, only superficially involved in their lives. He wants to know what's really going on with them – to really talk. It's a small, stirring moment in a movie that's filled with them. (Elsewhere, there's a scene in which Mason presses his father about the existence of elves, an unexpectedly funny exchange that comes out of nowhere, a giddy surprise.)
As his parents stumble around in their lives, trying to do the right things but never quite getting them right, Mason is making his way along all the stations of the cross of childhood: the loneliness of first days in new schools, the inexplicable hostility of school bullies, the first stirrings of sexuality (while perusing the women's-underwear section of a mail-order catalogue). He moves into adolescence, and we see him experiencing first love (and first dumping) and eventually perceiving a possible purpose in his life. The picture doesn't nail that down (it doesn't nail anything down), but we share his cautious hope.
The passage of time here isn't signposted – there are no onscreen notes telling us what year we're in. We simply see the actors steadily growing older, and note the procession of cultural signals: Harry Potter parties, Obama lawn signs, Game Boys and laptops. The music we hear also situates us in an easily recalled past, ranging from Britney Spears and Cat Power to Flaming Lips and Soulja Boy, Gnarls Barkley and Yo La Tengo. We always know, even if subliminally, where we are.
I can't recall Hawke and Arquette ever being better than they are here. His cheery energy powers the story at every turn, and she gives an inspired performance as a woman under siege by life and praying to somehow break free. (In one scene that's all the more piercing for being carefully underplayed, she sits in tears at a kitchen table as Mason prepares to leave home and head off to college. Suddenly bereft, she tells him, "You know what's next? My fucking funeral.") Coltrane has a moody presence that suggests future hunk possibilities, and he's greatly assisted in holding the screen by Lorelei Linklater, a natural who's entirely at home as a piss-and-vinegar kid and, later, a cuttingly droll teen.
The picture runs a little over two hours and 40 minutes, which, as has been noted elsewhere, is almost exactly the amount of time you could throw away on the latest Transformers movie. It's a tribute to a director who has never succumbed to the lure of Hollywood (Linklater is still based in Austin), and who thrives on miniscule budgets, that he can illuminate the human condition so vividly without ever seeming to try. Boyhood is a peak in Linklater's 30-year career, one that might seem difficult to surpass. I wouldn't bet against him doing it, though.
Mike Cahill is an ambitious writer-director who's drawn to deep spiritual themes but can't seem to get a grip on them. His first feature, the glum sci-fi item Another Earth, steadfastly tried my patience. His second, the new I Origins, is similarly jumbled.
Michael Pitt plays – stay with me here – a New York microbiologist named Ian. Ian is obsessed with irises, and he carries a camera with him everywhere to photograph people's eyes. (That people might stand still for this is an early implausibility.) One night at a costume party, he encounters a masked woman dressed entirely in black. Her eyes are visible, of course, so he raises his camera and clicks off a shot. She drags him away to a bathroom stall, they have it off – and then she suddenly bolts, disappears.
Years later, Ian is in his lab having a discussion with his new research assistant, Karen (Brit Marling, a lone pleasure to have on hand). Ian is annoyed that Intelligent Design knuckleheads always cite the intricate human eye as an argument against evolution. Karen says one way to prove this isn't so would be to actually grow an eye in a sightless creature – to demonstrate an "eye origin," if you will. Okay.
A short while later, Ian is buying a lottery ticket in a 7-11. He pays the clerk and gets his change: $11.11. Stepping outside, he notices the ticket is time-stamped 11:11. He sees a Number 11 bus. Then, looking up to a nearby rooftop, he sees a billboard advertising something or other, and on it a woman's face – with irises he recognizes. Yes.
All of this leads him, by means I couldn't quite process, to the mysterious mask woman. Her name is Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and she's not all that surprised to see him again, believing, as she does, that she and Ian were once lovers in another life. Ian, a science man to the core, believes this is nonsense. But he's a patient man – unlike us, he even overlooks a strange thing that Sofi has for white peacocks. He and Sofi fall in love, move in together, and are just about to get married when a call comes in from Karen – she's found a way to grow an eye. In blind worms.
Sofi tells Ian that even if they're ever separated, they'll find each other again. Then they're separated. Ian takes up with Karen. They marry and have a baby. Doctors note something unusual in the baby's irises. This leads Ian to fly off to Idaho, to visit a dairy farm run by a family named…Dairy. Whatever, whatever. Back in New York, Ian consults some sort of worldwide iris database and learns that a pair of eyes identical to Sofi's were recently scanned in Delhi. He flies off to India.
The scene that killed this movie for me begins in a teeming Delhi street. Ian spots a little girl whose irises look familiar. She's unaccompanied, so he takes her back to his hotel room, where he administers a test that the girl fails. Ian leads her back out to the hotel elevator – where the girl suddenly bursts into tears. Now, I submit that if anyone happened to see a grown man bringing a little girl out of his hotel room, and watched the child erupt in howling distress, that person would call the police. Or, preferably, take more direct action. But Cahill doesn't seem to have thought of this, and the supremely icky scene just passes by on the way to further plot muddle.
There's a big reveal at the end of the movie that doesn't withstand close scrutiny. Cahill is trying to address the possibility of a spiritual dimension that exists outside of human science, and that's an interesting subject. He can't clarify it, though. Like Ian's beloved Sofi and her white peacocks, it eludes him.