Sundance: Richard Linklater’s dazzling 12-year family epic

Shooting the same cast for a dozen years, the "Before Sunrise" director crafts an American masterwork

Topics: Movies, sundance 2014, Sundance Film Festival, Richard Linklater, ethan hawke, patricia arquette, ellar coltrane, Boyhood, Our Picks: Movies,

Sundance: Richard Linklater's dazzling 12-year family epic Ellar Coltrane, approximately age 6, in "Boyhood."

PARK CITY, Utah – After arriving on a predawn flight from New York midway through the third day of this year’s high-expectations, global-warmed edition of the Sundance Film Festival (I had a robotics team to coach back home), I was immediately faced with the consummate festival-goers’ dilemma: Movie or sleep? I’m so glad I skipped the sleep. Other premieres this weekend may have more industry buzz and higher commercial ceilings, like Kristen Stewart’s dramatic vehicle “Camp X-Ray,” or Keira Knightley’s turn to indie comedy with “Laggies,” and I haven’t seen either of those yet. But Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a moving and memorable 12-year epic of family life that isn’t quite like anything else in the history of cinema, already feels like this year’s Sundance moment.

“Boyhood” was the last film added to this year’s Sundance lineup, largely because Linklater didn’t finish shooting it until October. That marked the end of a remarkable production process that goes back more than 4,000 days, to 2002, as Linklater told us after what was billed as a special preview screening on Sunday night in the packed Eccles Theatre here. The idea behind the film is both dramatically simple and logistically next to impossible: Follow the life of a boy and his unexceptional Texas family from childhood to adulthood, but do it in real time, bringing the cast back together every year to film new episodes. Despite the immensely extended production process, this is a low-budget indie: According to Linklater, there were only 39 shooting days spread across a dozen years! (Full credit should go to producer Jonathan Sehring of IFC, who agreed to finance this wildly improbable venture.)

So during the making of “Boyhood,” young actors Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) went from being elementary schoolkids to college students, just as their brother-and-sister characters do. Playing their parents, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke visibly change too, going from impulsive, attractive and self-destructive young people to the compromises, devil’s bargains and minivan purchases of middle age. I felt nearly as crushed as teenage Mason Jr., Coltrane’s character, during a scene near the end when he learns that his dad, Mason Sr. (Hawke), now remarried with a new baby, has sold the vintage black Pontiac GTO that defined him as a younger man. In fact — and this is the beauty of the film, and the profundity — I felt that I was experiencing that moment from both guys’ perspective at the same time. Of course the Toyota minivan makes sense, in the context of Mason Sr.’s real life. (And he made a killing from selling that GTO!) Still, it’s a painful moment of disillusion, and one whose mark the quiet and introverted Mason Jr. will carry with him forever.



This isn’t the time and place for a full review of “Boyhood”; for one thing, it might not be done yet. The cut we watched in Eccles runs nearly three hours (on old-fashioned 35mm film!), and had no final credits or music clearances for its outstanding soundtrack, Linklater said. While I’d hate to lose a minute of the time I spend with this fictional family, and the film’s measured and organic pace is entirely deliberate, it’s possible that discreet snips will smooth out a few languid and uneven patches. For another, there’s almost too much to talk about. Linklater is able to make this “ordinary” story of Middle American family dysfunction — a story lacking nearly all the ingredients that count as dramatic in motion pictures, a story of divorce and remarriage, of families blended and broken, of first love and heartbreak and awkward ballgame outings and the Texas landscape, from wilderness to suburbia — into something transcendent and universal, a chronicle of joy and tragedy and loss and time that’s at least as profound as “The Tree of Life” and a whole lot easier to understand.

Although Mason Jr.’s transit from boyhood to manhood provides the narrative spine, and Coltrane is a moody, dreamboat-handsome young actor who holds the camera’s gaze, “Boyhood” is just as much the story of the two adults, Mason Sr. and Olivia (Arquette). They’re a couple who got married too young and have already hit Splitsville by the time we meet them, and both people are flawed and complicated characters for whom we feel immense compassion. Mason Sr. is in most respects a better dad than the sequence of abusive, alcoholic husbands Olivia tries out later, but he’s also an irresponsible GTO-driving Peter Pan type, who wants all the most dramatic parts of fatherhood without putting in the work. Our sympathy flows most naturally toward Olivia, an undeniably heroic single mom with a pattern of dubious decision-making. Part questing spirit and part nesting instinct, she keeps pushing her kids around the Lone Star State in search of an elusive dream of normalcy and stability, before understanding she must create and define those things for herself.

What we have here, on first viewing, is something awfully close to a masterpiece of American moviemaking, as well as a film that uses time to tell its story in an unprecedented fashion. One of the precedents, I suppose, is the love-and-marriage trilogy beginning with “Before Sunrise” that Linklater has made with Hawke and Julie Delpy, although those tell discrete stories separated by many years. “Boyhood” is something else again, almost a combination of Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” and Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but translated into Linklater’s Texas-Zen indie idiom and the world of the 21st-century American family. It’s a world of marvels, one I can’t wait to experience again.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...