2002 was, as I recall, a pretty decent year for the movies; Old masters like Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese were churning out vital and lovingly crafted historical dramas; Rising stars like Spike Jonze, Charlie Kauffman, and Rob Marshall made a big splash with conceptually daring genre experiments; Steven Spielberg was having a ton of fun with a one-two punch of smart and entertaining popcorn pics; The ever-opinionated Michael Moore gave the documentary industry an urgent shot in the arm; American audiences got to set eyes on a number of foreign treasures from Hayao Miyazaki, Alfonso Cuaron, and many more... And that's just scratching the surface.
But perhaps the most unique and singular cinematic undertaking of that year is one that wouldn't see the light of day until 2014, for 2002 is when Richard Linklater began filming his magnum opus Boyhood, which he shot in sequence over the course of a dozen years and has finally unveiled for us this summer.
Eschewing a conventional plot for a more slice-of-life structure, the premise itself is one of deceptive simplicity: A boy named Mason grows from seven to nineteen in contemporary Texas (Linklater's home state), and we watch it happen. Far more interesting from a conversation standpoint is the long-gestating production of the film, whereby Linklater reconvened his principle cast each year to shoot subsequent scenes in short film format, and then piece them all together into one complete motion picture. Kudos to dedicated film editor Sandra Adair on that job well done!
In that time, the actors have aged along with their characters, creating a unique special effect that's most notable in the case of film's two youngest stars, Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater (the director's own daughter) as his sister Sam. They are naturally convincing at playing the young ages they were 12 years ago, but more impressive is their ability to maintain a certain level of consistency in their personalities to compliment the growth, maturation, and change that their characters undergo.
So too do the adult cast members have a firm handle on the people they're tasked with playing for over a decade. Patricia Arquette is superb as the kids' no-nonsense single mom struggling nobly to make a better life for them, ill equipped as she is to deal with the pressures of doing so. Ethan Hawke is often delightful as their father who is all too self-aware of his faults as a parent, but never gives up on trying to make a positive difference in their lives.
Even though these people are fictional, they feel like people you could know, living in the real world in real time. Linklater even has the foresight to pepper each sequence of his timeline with sociocultural landmarks (books, films, music, news events) to help you date the stages Mason's life. You can almost think of it like an extremely toned down cousin to Forrest Gump, insomuch that we witness a mosaic of modern history unfolding around a somewhat passive hero.
But the real world allusions don't captivate nearly as much as the sublime banalities of Mason's boyhood. Ask anyone with kids and they'll tell you how utterly fascinating it is to watch a child being shaped into an adult by all the seemingly inconsequential events of their formative years.
But it's in that contemplation of life's cruel and kind brevity that the bigger picture of Linklater's thesis takes form. Even though he is forced to fade to black after 12 years (a mere three hours for us), in that span he has managed to imply that life is not a finite period of time, but rather an instantaneous moment; That indivisible fraction of a second that seizes us beyond our control, before immediately giving way to the next moment, and then the next one, and then the one after that.
Even as the credits role, it's impossible not to imagine Mason, somewhere in the Texan wilderness, being seized by another moment. To say that there's a happy ending to Mason's story would not be true, but no less true than to say there's an unhappy ending. There is no ending to Mason's story. There is only a perpetual state of being; An eternal, kinetic collage of photographs that, when viewed in sequence, create a feeling so much deeper and richer than any one of them does on its own. What a beautiful and fitting metaphor to see played out on a film reel.
**** out of ****