Act Naturally

What’s the sign of truly great acting?  It’s when you don’t realize it’s acting.

“The very best actors,” Roger Ebert once said, “are the ones who do the least.”  Given a decent script and adequate preparation, he explained, a player in a film need only perform the physical actions required of his or her character, and everything else will fall naturally into place.

Watching Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s most peculiar new movie, I spent a great deal of time regarding its protagonist, Mason, as a largely passive character.  In scene after scene, everybody else is talking and carrying on and being dramatic, and Mason just sits quietly—serenely, even—offering little more than a raised eyebrow or a subtle grin.  Things happen around and to him—indeed, other people seem all-too-eager to tell him how to live his life—and he just runs with it, content not to generate any sort of drama himself.

Most movies don’t allow themselves a passive hero, perhaps from fear of boring their audience.  Screenwriting professors forever caution against it, and Kurt Vonnegut neatly instructed budding writers that a character in a story “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

As Boyhood progressed, and the full measure of Mason’s personality gradually took shape, I realized I was mistaken.  Those early moments of introversion and pensiveness were not signs of a dull or lazily-written character.  Rather, they were the opening stages of an ongoing process that we might hazard to call a life.

Ten-year-old Mason’s silent wince when his dad talks to him about birth control is explained not by a timid screenplay.  It is explained by Mason being a prepubescent kid being cornered into an awkward sex chat with his father.  (Did I mention it occurs in a bowling alley and that Mason’s sister is there, too?)  His reaction is exactly what you would expect of anyone his age, albeit rarely in a movie character of any age.

A few years later, when he joins a group of shady schoolmates on a camping trip, quietly sipping cheap beer and allowing the others to dominate the conversation, it’s not that he has no personality.  Rather, it’s that he is a naturally reserved and easygoing person, and is perfectly fine not being the center of attention.

In high school, where he shows every sign of becoming a highly gifted photographer, a teacher gives him a tongue-lashing for spending too much time in the darkroom when he could be out there doing something lucrative and practical.  His response—shrugging the teacher off and sheepishly defending his work ethic against a charge of lackadaisicalness—might be dismissed by many script coaches as insufficiently confrontational.  In fact, what the scene underlines is Mason’s continued and determined effort to avoid confrontations.  It’s just who he is.

The cumulative effect of all these vignettes—the payoff, as it were—is a character not quite like any other in mainstream movies.  As Mason, Ellar Coltrane’s is an exemplary performance, because it never for a moment seems like a performance.  From the opening frame onward, Mason is simply a person we have the unusual opportunity of seeing evolve and grow.  (The movie was shot, little by little, over the course of 12 years.)  Yes, he is a fictional character, and yes, his lines were written down on a piece of paper.  But by the end of the story, we feel like we know him as intimately as many people in our own lives.  He has, through the magic of cinema, been transformed from a puppet into a real boy.

In the film vernacular, the word for this is “naturalism.”  There were points during Boyhood when I felt like I could go on watching it forever—not because its characters are exceptional (they’re not), but because they don’t feel like characters.  As with director Richard Linklater’s 2013 film Before Midnight (and its prequels, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), the movie plays like a real-time documentary, but with all the exciting drama and wit that actual documentaries rarely contain.

I don’t have children of my own, but Boyhood instilled in me the sense of paternalism that comes naturally to the job of parenthood.  Like his mom, played by Patricia Arquette, I became protective of Mason—anxious when he went off on his own; horrified when his drunk, abusive stepfather took him and his stepsiblings hostage; proud when he placed second in a high school photography competition.  I felt those things as I rarely do for a fictional person, but in this case they were earned because the person in question was made to seem real and worth rooting for.

As it turns out, the secret to garnering affection in the movies is the same as in real life:  Don’t put on an act.  Just be yourself.

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