A tale of two families: ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Miles (Ellar Coltrane) growing up over the course of "Boyhood."

Miles (Ellar Coltrane) growing up over the course of “Boyhood.”

WHILE WATCHING BOYHOOD, I was struck by how it is the ultimate Richard Linklater movie. Usually, Linklater uses a compressed time frame to support his more personal, non-studio stories: The last day of school in Dazed and Confused, as well as two movies that bear titles explaining precisely when they take place, Before Midnight and Before Sunset. Then add to that liberal sprinklings of arm-chair philosophy and stoned paranoia, such as Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. In Boyhood, Linklater’s “compressed” time frame is about 18 years, but consider that really is about 1/4 of a human life, still relatively short. The philosophy is Mason’s evolving view on life, how he can become the man he wants to be. Sure, a movie that runs two and three-quarter hours and doesn’t have an orc or hobbit in sight can feel a little long. However, I was surprised about how quickly Boyhood felt like it moved. I don’t often agree with the Academy when it comes to choices for prestige pics. But Linklater has created a unique film marked by its detail, realness and maturity. This is precisely the type of film that should win awards.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) share an eternal love in "Only Lovers Left Alive."

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) share an eternal love in “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

I TEND TO BE OF TWO MINDS when it comes to Jim Jarmusch. I’m amused by his earlier films: Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. They are black and white, low-budget, quirky, raw indie movies made before anyone paid attention to indie movies. I wouldn’t say they’re great, but if you’re a young filmmaker looking on how to do a lot with little, both would be worth the viewings. Ghost Dog is my favorite, maybe one of my all time favorites, a menacing yet humorous mix of eastern warrior philosophy, goodfella culture and the street sounds of Big Apple hip-hop (the score was produced by the RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan). However, I’ve never loved his western, Dead Man, like a lot of critics do, and while I appreciate the experimental approach of Coffee and Cigarettes, it got old, quickly.

Only Lovers Left Alive might be Jarmusch’s crowning achievement. Adam is a moody, underground rock star with a penchant for expensive, rare guitars and a talent for brooding tunes. Eve is a bold, up-beat westerner living in Tangier who favors books and late-night walks. Both are also vampires, married for ages, living apart but returning to each other again and again as the centuries unfold. This film is but a slice of their life together, a story that seems to fight the idea that history repeats itself while simultaneously succumbing to that very inevitability.

THE TWO MOVIES very much focus on the family (while, I would imagine, being completely reviled by Focus on the Family). In Boyhood, there is no stability in Mason’s family life. Mason’s mom and dad are split when the movie begins, his single mom trying to figure out her life and how to best provide for her kids, his dad a flaky musician who was unprepared for fatherhood and fled at the start. Friends, step-parents, schools and neighborhoods come and go, but that core family unit hangs around. Mason’s mom gets lost in some romantic entanglements, but she consistently fights to maintain her connection with her children. Despite being selfish dick, the only genuine thing in Mason’s dad’s life outside of his music is his love for his kids. Grandma is there, as are some family friends that revolve around Mason. There is a support group, even if sometimes its more feeble or tenuous than others.

Adam and Eve are not alone, either. Eve lives near a long-time family friend, Christopher Marlowe (yes, that one), who is a father-figure to the couple, a companion to Eve and over-bearing dad to Adam. Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowski, who is a hoot), is unstable, showing up uninvited, constantly trying to bogart the good blood. Adam has zombie (i.e. human) acquaintances, among them his default aide, Ian, and a doctor who supplies him with blood. They are a tight crew because their uniqueness requires it.

In both cases, these families function despite their dysfunction. Mason’s dad is barely around, and his mom’s romantic interests tend to be bad for her and her kids. But she keeps plugging, keeps hoping for more, and her children end up the better for it. Yes, Mason and his sister, Samantha, are a bit detached and cynical, but they’ve never really gone off the tracks, graduating high school, moving on to college, searching for a way to stabilize their own lives. In Only Lovers Left Alive, Adam periodically contemplates suicide, bemoans how the zombies live their lives in ignorance and hate instead of choosing enlightenment, actively separating himself as much as possible from those who know him the best. But with Eve, Adam finds peace, finds companionship, finds someone who is his equal. Eve challenges him to fight his ennui, brings him perspective when he can’t see the forest for the trees. And when Marlowe gets some bad blood that brings his time on Earth to a close, the petty family bickering is forgotten, his loved ones gathered with him as he moves on.

Another theme both films share is the idea that life and time are cyclical. Mason’s dad left when he was young. His mom’s second husband was a violent drunk, and they end up fleeing for safety. When Mason’s second step-dad enters the picture, he can see that this man is temporary, relatively unimportant. In one particularly strong scene, Mason shows up late after a night partying, his step-dad drinking a beer on the porch waiting for him. You can see the frustration in the step-dad’s face, that this kid is disrespectful and possibly starting to veer down the wrong path. He wants to impart this to Mason, although he doesn’t have the ability to communicate it in a way Mason will listen, largely because Mason knows this father figure won’t be here long, that his step-dad has no real power over him. The lack of concern about this man’s very existence is etched in Mason’s face. Mason knows this too will pass, so it doesn’t faze him. And, of course, he was right.

In Only Lovers Left Alive, Ava is a blight on the family. Her very name raises a spectre of dread and dampens the reunion of Adam and Eve. Adam bemoans her appearance, knowing that she will bring something dreadful upon them all. And sure enough, when Ava is left alone with Ian, she drinks him, killing him and forcing Adam and Eve to run from Detroit to Tangiers. Throughout the film, Adam and Eve avoid feeding on live humans, both to keep a low profile and because zombie blood has become too tainted for their tastes. But when they are on the run, out of resources and have nowhere left to turn, they feed, returning to their predatorial roots in desperation and need.

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