An Authentic Journey Through Time
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a beautiful film about unbeautiful things. It is a masterpiece about the ordinary, a meditation on 21st century anxiety, an exploration of falling in and out of love. And yet it is also simply a film about aging, and sincerely, like no other I film I have ever seen.
Linklater, who also wrote the film, shot intermittently over 12 years with the same actors, a risky, rewarding, and almost incomprehensible project to partake. His primary experimental subject is Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and we watch him grow naturally from 6-year-old little boy to college-bound young adult, an entire evolution of adolescence running parallel to his older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei). They live in Texas. Patricia Arquette plays mom and Ethan Hawke plays estranged husband and father, returning home after a year and a half in Alaska.
What is the plot? The question alone implies a misunderstanding of Boyhood. The film does not insist upon structure or resolution. It thrives in ambiguity, conversation, and in simple observation. Linklater has stitched together an extended series of home videos that, much like the nature of the film, which runs 165 minutes, seems to finish in the blink of an eye. Like memory itself, the scenes he captures don’t lean on milestones as much as impressionable moments, the small, personal joys and traumas to which we continually return. There is a birthday celebration and a graduation gathering, but most of the film’s poignant beats live in the cracks, the in-betweens.
Music is the first way inside this film. Mason begins the opening scene lying on his back, staring into the sky as Coldplay’s “Yellow” strums over moving clouds. Later, Samantha wakes him up in their room singing Britney Spears and miming her provocative dance moves. Sheryl Crow filters through the car radio dial, then Soulja Boy, then Foo Fighters, all at various points in time. A new artist named Lady Gaga becomes a car ride conversation and Gnarls Barkley plays in a Mini Mart. Sometimes the sound is faint, other times it’s everything. Was “Hey Ya!” really popular in 2003? The film works like a fluid time capsule, a reflection of trends shot presently rather than nostalgically.
In some senses, its attention to fads breeds a deeper nostalgia. Early on, Olivia (Arquette) cuddles with her kids to read Harry Potter and years later, they dress in costume during the sixth book’s midnight release. Mason works on those colorful iMacs in school and eventually advances to playing his Gameboy, Xbox, and Wii. At one point, Mason Sr. (Hawke) takes his kids– during one of his sporadic weekend visits– to a Houston Astros game. Roger Clemens is on the mound, and Senior un-ironically mentions the pitcher’s impressive longevity that will become a damning discussion a few years later.
Boyhood does not shy away from pain though. Mason and Samantha’s life is one of constant fluctuation and flirtation with permanence. They move from Houston to San Marcos to Austin, which means new beds, new schools, and new friends. Olivia pursues a degree in psychology and eventually marries her professor, who has two kids of his own. But alcohol and abuse become a persistent theme in Olivia’s spousal choices, the next one a war veteran who turns demonstrative as Mason explores his teenage self.
Mason and Samantha are both instigators and innocent bystanders to this melancholic periphery, gazing at fights through windows and listening to perpetual yelling through the walls. Mason Sr.’s visits remain the rare constant in their lives and Hawke expresses his usual kinetic geniality, escorting them to his bachelor pad, intensely curious about his kids’ daily problems. “Talk to me,” he begs of them. Mostly these are chances for father to impart his wisdom. A bowling alley becomes the backdrop for an indictment about the Iraq War, which evolves into a sex talk when Samantha insinuates she may have a boyfriend. Later, Mason and Senior hopelessly drive around posting Obama/Biden yard signs in their suburban Texas landscape. Eventually their conversations—which range from the Beatles to girlfriends– occur inside Mason Sr.’s minivan as a remarried man with a newborn in tow.
The joys in watching Linklater films start with the ability to make his actors forget there’s an audience. You feel like you’re constantly trespassing onto character territory, an awkward guest unavoidably present in the midst of others’ intimacy or collision. Everything you hear is eavesdropping. That’s because there is no performance happening and no tricky camera work to suggest it. Linklater has essentially crafted a beautifully rendered surveillance video, unafraid to linger and take in a moment.
That’s partly why he has mastered the concepts of time like few directors and writers. We notice jumps into the future not by a timestamp but by casual skips forward, accentuating key banalities and cultural allusions in dialogue. We see it clearly in Mason’s personal journey, transforming mop tops to unsolicited buzz cuts, hearing his voice drop, watching his youngster face marvel at a dead bird and seeing the same bewilderment when offered a beer and joint. That inquisitive eye later turns into a passion, and Mason photographs the splintered pieces of his life. Unlike a series of actors hoping to harness a collective spirit, Coltrane’s dozen years of dedication provides a rare clarity. By the film’s end, Mason has turned into an ear pierced, lovelorn, wiry man. You stare into his eyes and don’t have to imagine how quickly he’s grown before you.
Linklater has explored our perceptions of time prior to this marathon, comically in Dazed and Confused and profoundly in his Before trilogy, following a captivating dynamic between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Captured over twenty years, we checked in on Jesse and Celine once in their twenties, thirties, and forties for the length of a day listening to the couple’s existential ruminations about the past, love, working and aging, separately and together. In the third film a discussion about parenting hits a feverish climax in a hotel room. Celine feels stifled into caregiver and homemaker. Jesse deflects her worry and insults about his loose parenting. Their anger stems from a fear of losing their own lives. Where have they gone? What have they achieved? Time no longer works in seconds and minutes for them. Each tick feels like a milestone. It’s exactly the mentality that Olivia sobs to Mason as she moves into her own apartment to become an empty nester. “You know what’s next? My funeral,” she humorously cries.
Depending on your own stage in life, this film might be more accurately called Parenthood. Arquette, who displays just about every maternal emotion in this film, deals with both the mundane and life changing with brave control. Most of her diabolical companions and colleagues share the same set of strict guiding principles. Talk about responsibility and discipline runs abundant. Curfews, manners, and chores are instituted as required foundational habits. These commands spew from drunken stepfathers in a way that suggests severe displeasure in their own lives. They don’t connect with Mason and Samantha. Their angry monologues are recitations from a generation before them. In this regard, Linklater has made an exhausting double feature partner for The Tree of Life.
The real problem is that these adopted rules find little wavelength with millenials. “Not knowing is not so bad. The point is to be looking, searching, stay hungry,” says Celine to Jesse in Before Midnight. It reads like a 21st century manifesto. Between iPhones, Facebook, and an NSA debate, Linklater makes room for another interpretation, pondering the last 12 years, an age of ethical ambiguity symptomatic of technological saturation. So much has changed in such a short period. Ironically, it’s all on the screen.
As we look at Mason during his trip to college, this becomes clear. He hikes with some friends, where the film ends, at Big Bend National Park. It’s sunset and Linklater scans the horizon surrounded by rock formations’ glow. For his whole life, parents, stepdads, and teachers have advocated grabbing life and seizing the moment. Mason reverses the logic. He lets the moment seize him. He’s giving us advice. It’s the best way to experience a masterful, rich, rare film like this, too.