On “Boyhood” and Parenthood

Patricia Arquette reading to a 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," an IFC release.

Patricia Arquette reading to a 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” an IFC release.

When you become a parent, you fall in love. And then, you spend the rest of your life worrying about the love of your life getting hurt. It is a lifelong commitment to anxiety as you watch your child grow and make decisions/mistakes without you. This strange mixture of unmatched joy and constant terror bubbling just beneath the surface of your seemingly normal demeanor is rarely captured in a film. But in Richard Linklater’s latest film Boyhood, that reality is deeply felt.

Though the parents of the main character are not themselves the subjects of this story, it is their anxieties that we in the audience are made to feel most viscerally as we watch a young boy grow from about 6 years old to 18 years old. In that time, the boy grows up, falls in love, has his heart broken, graduates from high school, and embarks upon the journey to adulthood that begins with college. And every step of the way, Linklater gives us moments of tension that we think will build to devastating tragedy, but which, instead, play out just as they would in reality 99 percent of the time, without much drama at all.

For example, in one scene, an adolescent Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is hanging around with some older kids, comparing notes on sex. The idea of calling in some prostitutes is raised, likewise raising the hairs on the back of our neck. We’re bracing ourselves for a revolting display of tween sexuality, when it turns out it was just a game of chicken, and no prostitutes come. The discussion quickly moves to another even more frightening demonstration of masculinity and that youthful feeling of indestructability, when the group decide to hurl saw blades at a wall. Linklater takes great pains to show us a closeup of the blade, build tension through editing, and then allow the scene to play out in a stunningly non-dramatic way. It’s as though he is saying to the audience, “Scared you, didn’t I?”

So meaningful are these sequences, that they caused a bit of stir after the screening I attended at the Nantucket Film Festival where MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, who attended the festival,  asked about the intentionality of these sequences and why they were constructed this way. The producer attending for Q&A said she didn’t think they were intentional at all, which was shocking, because clearly they are. Instead, a member of the audience responded to Matthews: “because that’s how parenting is; you are always worried and most of the time nothing bad happens.”

Likewise, the parenting choices made by Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are sometimes questionable. They are, like all of us, flawed characters who sometimes give in to the pressures in their lives. Whether it’s the stream of bad relationships (on the mother’s part) or the inability to step up and be an adult (on the father’s part), these are all choices that feel real, and they are handled in a way that acknowledges the fact that bad choices don’t necessarily mean “bad parenting.” Ultimately, these are parents who, though divorced and wildly different from each other, love their children and would die for them. But they are not perfect.

Much has been made of this film’s production methods, in particular its timeline. The film went into production 12 years ago and stayed with the same cast, so what we see on the screen has a documentary quality to it as each actor–children and adults, alike–age in real life as well as in the fictional universe. No doubt, this is what drove many to add this film to their must-see list, and it is a remarkable display of commitment from all involved. Yes, the results cannot be imitated without going through that long production process, but it isn’t the reason this film should be seen and celebrated. Boyhood is remarkable for its even-toned realism. It is a slice of life–albeit a large slice of someone’s life–and it eschews any of the phony drama of most modern movies, in favor of the real drama that is real life.

Maiden Voyage to the Nantucket Film Festival

Fresh from the Provincetown International Film Festival, I am gearing up to attend the Nantucket Film Festival, which I have never attended before. In fact, although I’ve lived on Cape Cod for 14 years now, I have never even been to the island of Nantucket, and I am very much looking forward to sharing my observations with you when I get over there for the festival program on Sunday, June 29th.


Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!

The festival officially kicks off on Wednesday, June 25, but there is a special pre-festival event on Tuesday, June 24 that I really wish I could attend because it brings together two of my loves: the cinema and one of my alma maters, Berklee College of Music. At 7:30 p.m. in the Dreamland Theater, the Festival brings us a screening of the 1923 silent film classic Safety Last directed by and starring Harold Lloyd, accompanied live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. While Chaplin and Keaton are the best known silent film comedians, Lloyd rounds out the top three, and a still from this film, in which Lloyd hangs from the hands of a clock tower, is probably one of the most iconic representations of the silent era. Janus Films has released a new digital print, and this is a particularly wonderful way to see that new print because of the orchestra accompanying it. Catch it if you can!

This is the 19th year that the Nantucket Film Festival has come to the island, bringing with it not only a range of independent films, but a particular focus on screenwriters. Almost since the beginning of the festival, Mystelle Brabbée has been a major force driving its direction. She first became involved as an intern 18 years ago, after hearing about the festival’s first year from a friend of a friend. She quickly moved on to program the festival, which she did for 16 years, then became its artistic director and executive director in 2012.

“It’s a whole different world now,” she says, reflecting on how the festival has changed. “In the early years it was very loose and studios had no idea how to work with a festival.”


Nantucket Film Festival’s executive director Mystelle Brabbée.

Now, the festival is bursting at the seams with programming, often involving high profile talent and all of the things that go along with bringing movie stars, major directors and screenwriters, and films with a lot of advance buzz to the tiny island of Nantucket. Throughout all this time, Brabbée says the focus has not wavered; it’s only grown to include more avenues to explore the art of storytelling in cinema.

“In the early years we had very few documentaries,” Brabbée admits. “But over the years, we recognized that good storytelling is good storytelling, in all its different forms, narrative or nonfiction… and our audiences love documentaries.”

This year’s festival includes 21 documentary features, as well as several nonfiction shorts, in addition to the 25 narrative features, plus more narrative shorts and special screenings. While the focus on storytelling, and screenwriting in particular, has not changed, Brabbée says the audience really has. She says, “The need to recognize a screenwriter is a little different today. Today, I think your average filmgoer will recognize when a script is good; they’ll say, ‘that’s really well written.’  So that has changed over the years, which gives us the chance to do other things around screenwriting, things that aren’t in the public eye as much.”

As examples, she cites the festival’s Tony Cox Screenwriting Competition, as well as additional services and programs to help mid-career as well as emerging writers with completing their scripts and getting them produced. “The screenplay that won last year was optioned and it just finished shooting with Jennifer Aniston,” she adds.

This year, the Screenwriters Tribute Award goes to Aaron Sorkin, a writer who is best known for television (West Wing, The Newsroom), but who is also a successful feature film screenwriter (Money Ball, A Few Good Men). It’s an interesting time for the film world as more and more people look toward television for high quality work, particularly in terms of the writing. But Brabbée says she’s not worried about any shortage of great films.

“We’re in the business of highlighting those movies,” she says. “But I do think that screenwriters, or writers, are often playing in both world–not everyone; some are strictly TV or strictly writing screenplays for film–but you will find more and more there is a crossover. [Sorkin]’s a perfect example… maybe he got his start in one, but he’s able to go back and forth in between and he’s done great work in both.”

Additional honors will be presented to documentary filmmaker Steve James, whose 1989 film Hoop Dreams breathed new life into theatrical documentaries and who comes to the festival this year with a documentary about the wonderful Roger Ebert, Life Itself. In addition, the New Voices in Screenwriting Award will go to Mike Cahill, whose new film I Origins is creating a lot of dialogue in film circles.

My Picks for the Festival this year…

INTERNET'S OWN BOY, THE1DOCUMENTARIES: The first three of these picks were also my picks for the Provincetown International Film Festival, but it is worth highlighting them again for those of you who did not get out there last week.

Art and Craft – The subject of this film is Mark Landis, an eccentric (perhaps autistic) art forger who has fooled dozens of major art institutions with his remakes of masterpieces, never accepting a dime for any of them. Really a fascinating story.

An Honest Liar  – This documentary about the Amazing Randi not only tells a great story about a magician who set out to expose the deceptions behind faith healers, spoon benders, and psychics, it also tells it in a brilliantly structured film. This is not a movie that peters out toward the end; in fact, the last 20 minutes may be the most revealing.

The Internet’s Own Boy – The story of a bright young idealist, Aaron Swartz, who was quite literally destroyed by misguided policies and the desire of some government officials to make an example of him as he tried to open up knowledge to those beyond the Ivory Tower.

Life Itself – This one, I admit, I have not yet seen. Based on the director Steve James’ record of making beautiful, truthful documentaries, and also my great admiration for its subject, film critic Roger Ebert, this is a top pick.

NARRATIVE FEATURES: Here again, the first two films were in Provincetown last week.

Calvary  – This Irish drama starts off as a black comedy and evolves into a powerful piece about the dimensions of morality, taking as its subject a Catholic priest who is told in confession that he is going to be murdered by a man who was abused by another priest, as a child.

Love is Strange – Alfred Molina and JohnLithgow star in this film by Ira Sachs that looks at an older gay couple who, upon getting married, ironically, end up having to live apart because of the fallout from their decision. It is not a political film; Sachs seems to prefer a more philosophical approach to love. Despite its questionable title, the film is both very funny and very moving.

Boyhood – Although I haven’t seen this film, its production concept, as well as the track record of director Richard Linklater, are enough to make me want to feature it here. Filmed over a period of 12 years with the same young actor, it tells a fictional coming of age story, but it has a quasi-documentary element to it as the actor himself does come of age throughout the process of making the film. Intriguing, no?

I Origins – As mentioned above, the writer of this film Mike Cahill is being honored at the festival this year. This film has been a festival favorite since its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Part science-fiction, part love story, it comes highly recommended to me and I recommend it to you because this is one that people will be talking about and whether you like it or don’t like it, it seems to be one of this films that will generate some dialogue.


Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin will be honored at this year’s Nantucket Film Festival.


As I said, this is my first time going to Nantucket, but in addition to their great slate of films, they also have a lot of signature programs that look absolutely wonderful. There is the All-Star Comedy Roundtable on Sunday, which features comedians discussing their writing processes (but I’m told, in a funny way!), including Jenny Slate, the star of Obvious Child; Afternoon Tea and Talks with the Steve James (Life Itself) and documentarian Rory Kennedy on Sunday, Cathleen Sutherland and Ellar Coltrane (producer and star of Boyhood) on Saturday; and on Thursday, there will be a staged reading of Strange Calls, a Nantucket-set script about mysterious strange phone calls and the police officer who must investigate, written by Donick Cary. The reading features actors Tom Cavanagh and Fred Willard.
My plan for Sunday is to take in two of the films I have been most eager to see since I first heard about them: Life Itself and Boyhood. I will be posting thoughts about the films and the atmosphere, once I get to Nantucket, here and on Twitter, so subscribe to both!