One of the more common fantasies I like to entertain is the idea of going back and time as I currently think and understand the world, complete with the memories and understanding of my life I’ve lived up to whatever point the hypothetical arises. This is a short-sighted desire with a slew of problems that implies, if not a considerable degree of regret, that I’m somewhat dissatisfied with where I am. Which I almost never am. Still, part of me is curious to see if me living undercover as myself would change anything, or if I could handle my childhood having already put that time of my life behind me. Or at least, that’s what I want to believe. Because, as much as I love or hate my youth–as if I’m already an old fart–I can’t help but be as indebted to those experiences for who I am now.
And that’s the simple conceit of Boyhood: the notion that a person is an accumulation of even the most minute experiences–and maybe more so than the milestones or most memorable episodes. As tempted as one may be to get hung up on Richard Linklater’s filmed-over-12-years conceit, the film doesn’t make much of a big deal out of this. And the trick of Boyhood is how ordinary the stories are, and how they nearly bleed together. How small these characters are, and how much we see of them over years in so little time. Rather than one story about a significant turning point, as is customary in most coming-of-age stories, Boyhood is invested in the graceful progression of one’s formative years.
From the beginning to end, Boyhood finds Mason (Ellar Coltrane) looking out into the sky, this vast oblivion that hangs over him. Mason is an observant kid, and most of the film is him watching others. Around him, we see his mother (Patricia Arquette), his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and his older sister Sam (Lorelai Linklater), as each of them also go through their own changes for more than a decade. Mason is easy to pigeonhole as a blank slate, because he is. Most kids are. But he goes through many of the same rites of passage as his generation: He likes Dragonball Z, he plays Halo, he suffers through his mom’s parade of crumby significant others, he starts developing his taste as a young teen, he goes through the highs and lows of a first love, and he strikes out on his own, having developed a pretty good idea of who he’ll be for the rest of his life.
Yeah, we watch Mason and Sam literally grow up, but we also see their parents grow up. And mess up. And do their very best, in spite of their continual errors. Mason Sr. is the dad who didn’t want to give up being an artist or stop being cool, who realizes he wants to take this adulthood thing seriously. Olivia, on the other hand, has no such luxury of arrested development, and her thankless work as an often single mother goes almost entirely unnoticed. And really, not enough can be said about Patricia Arquette or Ethan Hawke, but especially Arquette, who is dignified and sympathetic, even when she makes frustrating decisions. Mason never has a moment where he tells his mom how much he loves her. He at least has a heart-to-heart with his dad. Heck, Mason Sr. gets a second chance to be a dad with his new family all over again. But Olivia never gets her due. Her story is a crushingly honest requiem of motherhood, the significance of which isn’t realized until later on.
Of course, the world around them changes in some pretty significant ways as well. As these characters figure themselves out, the culture changes. Technology changes. We see the advent of smartphones, of social media, and even the dissolution of personal privacy–Mason has a characteristically adolescent monologue about how Facebook is brainwashing users. Some things are similar–like fashion, and the homoantagonism of teenage boys–but some are weirdly predictive. In one scene, Mason and Sam are putting up Obama/Biden signs, only to be shooed away by a man who sneers at Mason, “Do I look like a Barack Hussein Obama supporter to you?” We start to see that post-9/11 xenophobia that turns someone into an eventual Trump voter.
Even music changes. Richard Linklater is no slouch with a soundtrack, picking both great songs, and ones that signify the times in which his stories take place. The glossy major label sounds of Coldplay and Sheryl Crow, lacing in everyone from The Flaming Lips, Wilco, and Soulja Boy, who eventually give way to the indie boom of the aughts, and Linklater settles for Family of the Year and a couple of cuts from Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Really, these are the most non-diegetic signals Linklater offers to mark the passage of time. Even better, his needle drops work just as well as small asides or poems to the characters wherever they are in their lives. Whether that’s Chris Martin’s lullaby-esque “Look at the stars, look how they shine for you, and all the things you do,” as young Mason stairs into the clouds. Or when Mason and his girlfriend head to Austin, staying out late in the whirlwind of a first love scored by Yo La Tengo’s soft “I’ll Be Around.” Not to mention the film’s eventual anthem, as “Hero” finds a solitary trekking through the Texas desert, heading out to start his life.
While his music cues aren’t entirely subtle, they do allow the rest of his film to be. Boyhood mines so much joy and agitation from minor, yet universal moments. Early on, Olivia has to move the family, leaving so quickly that Mason can’t say goodbye to his friend Tommy (Elijah Smith). As they drive away Mason catches Tommy biking alongside them through a sideview mirror, waving farewell. We barely know Mason or Tommy, but the experience of moving away from childhood friends is so common. And yet, being with Mason in that moment, Linklater lets us into Mason’s skin. And even if we’re years and years older than Mason, we’re allowed to visit that disappointment and subsequent relief.
Linklater isn’t interested in the nostalgia, in the glamor and warmth of a time that makes sense to us in retrospect; he’s into feeling out a certain time and place that looks familiar more emotionally than the textural sensation of, say, looking through a photo album. In that sense, Boyhood is a fascinating commentary on the nature and power of how cinematic storytelling carries through time. Even films with broad, universal themes have a habit of aging into obscurity. But because Linklater writes with a sharp focus, one can find something to latch onto in a given story. Part of this is that Linklater is taking from his own life. Some aspects are obvious–such as Mason becoming a visual artist–but others are understood to a degree that is completely lived-in–such as the domestic abuse arc in the first half of the film. And though Linklater is telling stories about things that happened decades before he filmed them, they are, for better or worse, still resonate.
Of course, so much of the appeal of Boyhood, at least for me, is how much I see myself in Mason. I am not as effortlessly cool, nor nihilistic as Mason, but his life parallels mine in a myriad of ways. We are roughly the same age–or were when the film was released. We grew up in the same era. We both had one sister relatively close to us who we fought with all of the time. We both had hard-working mothers who are deeply intelligent, but didn’t always hitch themselves to the best men. We both deferred schoolwork to pursue our own artistic interests. And while I got into more trouble than Mason, and was typically louder, we had identical post-adolescent trajectories. I could just be enamored by what is a somewhat flattering reflection.
Perhaps I value Boyhood so much because I see my own era validated, but then again, dozens of films have come and gone, trying and failing to adequately capture the same phases and periods the way Linklater does. Much like he captures Gen-X in Slacker, or how he lent his peerless voice to his fellow Baby Boomers in Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater understands millennials better than any other filmmaker, what makes their generation so distinct, as well as the parts that make them the same. Richard Linklater sees a new group of people, one who remains unlike any that came before, one who moves so much faster, and perfectly encapsulates twelve years in less than three hours. And maybe that’s the haunting magic of Boyhood: How complete so much time can be summarized so succinctly, or how much time twelve years isn’t at all.
Rating – 10/10