Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater may not be among the most famous American directors, but he certainly is one of the best and most innovative ones. He began his career in 1985 and gained wider recognition in 1990 with his independent debut film Slacker. He later continued to make cult films such as Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise (a film that is – together with it’s two sequels – considered as one of the best trilogies of all time) and it was with that trilogy that we  first encountered Linklater’s interest in the development of human relationships, emotions and mentality over the years. With Boyhood, his 16th feature film, he managed to capture the process of growing up as realistically as it is possible, for he followed a seven year old boy from his first grade to college, filming his childhood, adolescence and first steps into adulthood over the remarkable period of 12 years (from 2002 to 2013).

boyhood-2014-007-young-tussle-haired-mason-grinning-behind-hands

The crew met every year for a few days, with Linklater writing a screenplay each year as it came – sometimes only a night before they started filming. This is the reason why Boyhood brilliantly reflects all the most significant and defining political events (a war in Iraq, Obama’s 2008 campaign), pop-cultural references, technological advancements and the emergence of social networks, such as Facebook and how all of those things affected American people at the time.

The central character of Boyhood is extraordinary Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr. who, portraying the character between the age of 7 and 19, grows up right before our eyes during film’s remarkable 165 minutes. The years of Mason’s childhood and adolescence pass by us in brisk and irregular chronological intervals (all thanks to Sandra Adair’s amazing editing skills), all while we’re watching the core family members during their ordinary daily tasks – eating lunch, doing the dishes, sorting the bills and driving to the school. Different haircuts and clothing styles are usually the only indicators that time has passed and that this particular segment of the film was shot a year later than a shot that appeared on screen just a few seconds. With the exception of a few alcohol-related family dramas, this film is mainly about the micro-details of everyday life and it’s unbelievably refreshing to see a film that doesn’t spend any time leading us to the big, clichéd »turning point« events (like the first kiss and awkward virginity loss) that are usually the main focus of the coming of age films; not only that, such events are even entirely skipped over . According to Linklater “it’s the subtle accrual details that defines a life, not the big moments” – and it is exactly those details that may seem minimal and unimportant at the time, but that turn out to be much more significant than some big, “life-defining” events when we look back at our life that prevail in his latest film – details like your mother tucking you in, reading you a Harry Potter book before you go to sleep or a cruelly enforced haircut from your alcoholic stepfather and a camping trip with your estranged father that ends with him giving you your first dating advice.

boyhood-2014-006-teen-mason-and-pals-on-back-of-truck

But even though the film is primarily about Mason Jr., we never get a feeling that any of the other (supporting) characters are less important (as it is so often the case with coming of age films). Patricia Arquette gives her best performance to date as a single mother Olivia that desperately tries to rebuild a nuclear family that fell apart all too soon to give her children a »normal« childhood (because that’s what society expects from single mothers), although it never quite works out. It is painful to see her two marriages fall apart; but it is also comforting to see her grow from a woman that was financially dependable from all these different men in her life, to a woman that goes to a night school, does her Master’s degree, gets a respectable job and becomes completely self sufficient and independent. Then there is always brilliant Ethan Hawke as a cool but distant Dad who slowly grows into a more responsible person and becomes increasingly involved in the lives of his children. His once-a-year visits, where he simply tries to buy his children’s love with gifts and fun afternoons, slowly turn into a more meaningful and more regular quality time that they spend together and just as we can see Mason Jr. slowly growing into a mature, artistic young man, we can also see the growth of Mason Sr. who eventually lands a reliable job, buys a car that is more suitable for children  and eventually even thanks Olivia for raising his children all by herself. Mason’s older sister, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater, is the only one from the actors who seems to struggle a bit in some of the earliest scenes, but even she is very likeable as always-so-clever youngster who immensely likes to talk back to her mother.

This is probably the first film of this genre that gives as much importance to the parents as it does to the children. They all grow and affect one another with their presence and every character in the story is thus equally important (no matter how little screen time they get) because they are all important elements in Mason’s life, in him becoming who he is at the end of the film. This is therefore not so much a film about Mason’s boyhood as it is a study of family interactions, or rather of (family) life itself.

boyhood-2014-008-teen-mason-and-dad-laughing-with-beers

What I deem as another remarkable quality of this film is that even though Mason and Samantha’s childhood is far from idyllic (there is a lot of alpha-male alcoholic stepfathers and a lot of moving around the country) they both turn out to be smart and non-conforming young adults who able to think with their own head. Children from broken homes are too often shown as problematic and aggressive bullies with drinking and/or drug problems. But it is also possible for a child from such a family to escape from the hard reality into the world of art – like Mason does with his passion for photography. When a teacher tells him that he “views a world in a really unique way” it makes us wonder if he would still saw the world so very differently if he hadn’t had such a difficult childhood. Probably not.

You know, like, everyone’s saying ‘seize the moment’? I don’t know I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like, ‘the moment seizes us’.

The Basics:
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Running Time: 165 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 10

Advertisements

Die Welle (2008)

Die Welle is a 2008 German drama film, based on real-life social experiment called The Third Wave. The experiment took place at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California in 1967 and was undertaken by history teacher Ron Jones in his »Contemporary World« history class. Jones, who was unable to explain his students how the German population could have claimed ignorance of the extermination of the Jewish people during WWII, decided to demonstrate it instead. He started the movement called »The Third Wave« (or simply »The Wave« in the film) but was forced to terminate it after only five (!) days because things started to get completely out of control. Die Welle, although set in contemporary Germany, follows the events (as they were later documented by Jones) that happened during those unfortunate five days.

Rainer Wenger (as they named Jones’s character in the film), is a middle-age rocker and anarchist who is forced to teach a class on autocracy. But when he finds out that his students don’t believe a dictatorship could ever be established in Germany again, he starts an experiment to demonstrate how easily the masses can in fact be manipulated into a fascist regime. He begins by demanding that all students (who previously called him by his first name, Rainer), start to address him as »Herr Wenger«. He also starts to enforce strict classroom discipline – he demands that they stand up when they’re speaking and that they talk in a fewest words possible. He quickly emerges as an authoritarian figure – and surprisingly, the class is immediately more engaged than usual. Especially this one student is enthusiastically, almost fanatically eating his every word. The next day they start wearing white uniforms that separate them from the other students and consequently they start to form a tight community. They even create a distinctive salute for the group (similar to the one of the Nazi regime). There’s only one girl, Mona, who’s disgusted with how her classmates are embracing fascism and who leaves the project group in protest, while the others don’t see any connection with fascism in their behaviour.

On the third day the experiment takes on a life of its own. Other students start to join in and they start to segregate themselves from non-members completely (stopping non-members from entering the classroom for example).

Although thematically extremely interesting, I did not like how they approached to this rather delicate subject. What bothered me the most was that while Jones decided to terminate the movement on the fourth day, right after he saw that things were dangerously spinning out of control, Wenger gets so engaged in his project that he loses any sense of objectivity – he even gets in an argument with his wife when she confronts him about his bad influence on the kids and about the dangers of the movement. His reaction seems unbelievably irrational and irresponsible, childish even. He still decides to do the right thing in the end, but it doesn’t end well since the fanatical student doesn’t want the movement to end.

The ending was (as the director later explained) inspired by the Emsdetten school shooting that happened in Germany only two years before the film was released. Nevertheless, it felt a bit too dramatical, predictable and above all: unnecessary. I have nothing against films about high school shootings – but if they wanted to make a film about Emsdetten incident, they should focus only on that – we should get properly introduced to this student, we should get to know his background story, his family – we should get to know from where his problems and frustrations came from (a great example of a well done film exploring a school shooting incident is Estonian drama Klass from 2007). Die Welle‘s ending seemed forced, as if they tried to end the story in the most dramatic way possible – but what they really did is that they combined two very complex real-life stories that should each be explored on its own.

The Basics:
Directed by: Dennis Gansel
Written by: Johnny Dawkins and Ron Birnbach
Starring: Jürgen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt, Jennifer Ulrich
Running Time: 107 minutes
Year: 2008
Rating: 6.5

King of Devil’s Island (2010)

Norwegian prison drama King of Devil’s Island is based on real life events that happened in 1915 at the Bastøy Reform School, located on Bastøy Island south of Oslo. It served as a juvenile detention center for young (under-age) offenders from 1900 to 1953 when it was finally taken over by the Norwegian government. Like many other films about juvenile detention centres or boarding schools (Swedish Ondskan comes to mind here) this film includes tyrannical guards, brutal reformatory regimes, sexual abuse, suicide and attempted escape. Yes, we’ve seen it all before, but that doesn’t make it any less believable. I had a lot of teachers in the past that I could easily describe as borderline sociopaths: they enjoyed humiliating us, making us submissive and afraid to speak up, they suppressed our individuality, our creativity and our ability to think for ourselves. If you would send them to this island where they would be their own bosses, with no government control over them – if you would give them omnipotent control over the youngsters there – what would happen? It wouldn’t be much different than what happened on the Devil’s Island, no doubt.

The film begins with a teenager named Erling arriving on the island. Immediately after his arrival he must give up his real name – he becomes C-19 in the C Barracks, which is only one of the ways in which they completely dehumanize the boys. Then there’s also forced manual labor and cruel punishments for anyone who disobeys or talks back at the guards. As expected, C-19 is one of those boys who has trouble following the rules. He doesn’t misbehave for pleasure or out of pure stubbornness, but because he thinks the way they treat the boys is unjust. He can’t stand the hypocrisy of the guards, especially of the dorm master (who is regularly checking boys for their hygiene, insulting them in the process, while he himself is stinking of alcohol and who is sexually abusing the weakest boy in the group, C-5). He eventually becomes the reason for an uprising of the boys who arm themselves with farming tools and stones, burn down the barn and take over the control of the island until the military is called on the island to restore the order.

Although this is a story that was already seen many times – and it really has nothing new to tell – it is still an interesting watch. Film stands out from thematically similar works mainly because of the beautiful cinematography (by John Andreas Andersen). Harsh and cold landscape is captivating and it only increases the sense of brutal conditions in which the boys had to live (they deliberately chose to film in a wintertime, even though the real events took place in May). You can almost feel the freezing cold weather and it is really painful to watch the boys work in this inhumane environment.

Another attribute of this film is the cast. Stellan Skarsgård’s performance as the governor (who sees the teenagers as human trash that needs to be turned into »honorable, noble, useful, Christian boys« and who is deliberately turning a blind eye to the indications of sexual abuse because he is afraid it would ruin institution’s reputation) is strong, as always, but the real surprise here are the boys – especially Benjamin Helstad as C-19 and Trond Nilssen as his accomplice, C-1.

During their time on the island, C-19 and C-1 are secretly writing a story about being on a ship and trying to catch a whale that is repeatedly harpooned and seriously wounded but that continues to fight for its life: a story that symbolizes the resistance of the boys against the brutal reformatory regime.

The Basics:
Directed by: Marius Holst
Written by: Dennis Magnusson and Eric Schmid
Starring: Benjamin Helstad, Trond Nilssen, Kristoffer Joner, Stellan Skarsgård
Running Time: 116 minutes
Year: 2010
Rating: 7