Boyhood (2014)

Directed by Richard Linklater


I first saw Boyhood when it came out in theaters, by myself on a quiet day in the college town I knew I’d be leaving the following month.  I had no job to expect, nowhere to move but back home with my parents, and it was frankly just a quiet, lonely day that turned into a quiet, peaceful day.

Despite a runtime of nearly three hours, Boyhood flies by.  It’s mesmerizing, and upon re-watching it, something I tried to avoid as long as possible in fear of tarnishing my memory of the film, I found that I felt all the same exact emotions.  This is a very cathartic film, though as a white, straight male growing up in middle-class America, I identified with much of Mason’s childhood.  That isn’t the case for everyone, but I think the specifics of the journey are universal enough to stick with you.

When Linklater was on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, about two and a half years ago now, Maron remarked that Linklater’s earlier films were about how people passed through time and his later films have been about how time passes through people.  The earlier films, like SlackerDazed and ConfusedBefore Sunrise and even SubUrbia are stories told in a condensed time period, about a day or less.  His later films, which I think Maron was thinking of, had to have been Before Midnight and Boyhood.  Midnight, like it’s predecessors, is also told in a condensed amount of time, just one night, but the effect of that movie comes from having been introduced to Jesse and Celine almost two decades earlier.  It’s about how they move and talk, sure, but it’s really about how they’ve changed since we last saw them and since they first met.

Boyhood tells the story of Mason across twelve years, basically through grade school and high school.  The film, as I’m sure everyone knows, was filmed over the course of twelve years, in order to watch Mason get older onscreen.  Each year of his life onscreen is boiled down into a few scenes, some more momentous than others.  For the most part, these short films are rather uneventful and might even be boring in another context or without Linklater’s directorial touch.  He has a way of imbuing the simplest scene, the simplest lines of dialogue with unexpected meaning.  And to be honest, I’m not even sure what I mean by that.  Linklater just clues into something that we might not even realize we’re drawn to.

Whether it’s kids fighting in a very specific, even peculiar way or a specific detail about the awkwardness of your teenage years, Linklater knows just what to show, just what to have his characters talk about, to make you remember the vividness of that feeling and that time in your life.

Sometimes a scene is incredibly uncomfortable because either the acting is pretty stilted or the characters are just that uncomfortable to be around.  As a stand alone short film, these films might be hard to watch, but godammit I identified with those characters, those feelings and some of those cringe-worthy moments, such as when Mason goes on a rant about the evils of facebook.  I was one of those people who deleted his facebook and expected it to be some kind of big, soapbox moment, but then you get a little older and see that none of it matters.

And all those little moments that this film chronicles, they mostly don’t matter.  Mason talking to his dad about how a girl he likes doesn’t enjoy the same movies he enjoys doesn’t matter.  When they go to an Astros game in 2005, it doesn’t matter.  Mason getting his hair forcibly shaved by the first of two alcoholic stepfathers, it doesn’t matter, at least not in a conventional narrative sense.

Each of these vignettes immerses you in the moment, showing us what’s happening to Mason right now and how real that feels.  And then suddenly, without calling too much attention to the cut, we jump ahead another year and focus on another vivid moment.  By focusing on these seemingly mundane but personally-important moments, then moving quickly to the next year and the one after that Linklater both shows how stuck in the moment we can be and also how minuscule that moment is in the grand scheme of your own life.

The general arc of the movie follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Sam (Lorelai Linklater), as they move with their mother (Patricia Arquette) around various parts of Texas, receiving occasional visits from their father (Ethan Hawke).  With the parents divorced, it presents more of an obvious journey for both the kids and their mother.  She goes back to school, then gets married twice while their father transitions from more of a punk rock, Mustang-driving young man to a van-driving family man who now goes to church every weekend.

The film shows how everyone changes very subtly over time.  We don’t see the parents in every scene, nor do we always follow Sam.  We just follow Mason, and instead of seeing all the ‘big’ moments in his life, we just see the ones that are likely to stick with him.  We never see any of the marriages or divorces between the mother and her two new husbands.  We don’t see Mason’s graduation, but we see the moment after.  We do see the night he first seems to get together with a high school girlfriend and a later scene that addresses the dissolution of that relationship.  We do see Mason’s developing interest in photography, and we get a few scenes over the years of adult figures sternly telling Mason what to do.

By the end, he’s somewhat free.  Childhood is kind of daunting, when you think about it now.  There are twelve years in which you have very little control.  You have to go to school, you have to be here and there, and children can be assholes.  It’s a tough time.  The feeling Linklater seems to be emphasizing is that you don’t have any control.  You just make the best of your situation, though you first do that unconsciously.

As a young boy, Mason bikes around with his friend, he plays in the dirt, looks at porno mags, and later he more reluctantly follows his mother around, sitting in on her college lectures, attending parties with her coworkers.  This isn’t meant to condemn anything about childhood.  It’s just the nature that you’re born into a situation, and you exist within certain confines whether you realize it or not.  And by the end, the camera lingers on Mason as he drives himself to college, with the lyrics “let me go, I don’t want to be your hero” playing on the soundtrack.

The feeling is that he’s arrived.  He made it.  And yet, he’s only supposed to be 18, which is kind of funny because being 18 feels like a lifetime ago.  It’s only just the beginning.

I don’t know how else to talk about this movie, but I feel like I could do it forever.  Linklater deftly hides the cuts from one time period into the next.  In one scene, Mason’s alcoholic stepfather runs to the liquor store.  Then we see him pouring himself a drink, and we don’t yet even know that a full year has gone by, that this is happening in the new ‘now.’  It’s a similar effect to Birdman, the movie that beat Boyhood to win Best Picture.  These two movies both feel seamless in a very similar way, now that I think about it.

The ‘trick’ of Birdman was that it’s meant to feel like a single, continuous take, for just about the entire movie.  But you can tell where some of the camera cuts are hidden, whether it’s when someone walks by the camera, and two shots are then blended into one, or when the camera swooshes around two characters, and the cut is in that blur.

Like that movie, Boyhood hides the cuts.  You know they’re cuts, because we go from one shot to the next, but the movie has gotten us used to the style and pacing of the film, so the cut from one year to the next is often hidden in an action to surprise us, but not in a flashy way.  The effect is as if you blinked and wonder where the time went.

And isn’t that how we perceive time?  Our minds focus on certain moments, some more conventionally memorable than others.  We think about a moment, then suddenly we’re in the next moment.  And in terms of memory, you might recall a single day very vividly and then be unable to recall entire weeks before or after that day.  An obvious example is the day of any kind of tragedy, whether national or personal.  You might recall that day in vivid detail but not remember a thing about the days before or after.

A much smaller example is when you’re in a group setting, maybe a class.  On the first day, everyone goes around and introduces themselves.  You’re more likely to forget or not even hear the answers of the person immediately before or after you because you’re thinking so much about your own answer.  Maybe that’s a little different, but our minds perceive things differently, subjectively.

One of things people like so much about Dazed and Confused is its soundtrack, complete with songs from the time period of the movie, as if to help you remember what it felt like to live then.  He does the same thing here in Boyhood, purposefully dating the film without calling too much attention to the year.  Again, there are no title cards announcing a new year, but he does fill out the soundtrack with hits from a given year, and he focuses on things that are trending in that moment.  There’s the scene of the mother reading Harry Potter to her kids, a later scene in which they attend the midnight release party of the new book, the scene in which Mason tells his father that his three favorite movies of the year are The Dark KnightTropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, the scene in which Mason watches the Will Ferrell video The Landlord, and so on.

I guess this is all just a combination of universal feelings and emotions and specific moments in history.  It’s about how we change, how the people around us change, and to a minor degree, how the culture changes.  It’s just about change, okay?

God, I love this movie.  It’s such a cathartic, relaxing experience.  Like the end of A Ghost Story, or Whiplash or some other movies I can’t think of right now, I was on the edge of my seat.  The cut from the final shot to black felt as moving as any in the entire film.

The final shot involves Mason sitting watching the sunset with a girl he just met.  They’ve taken edibles or shrooms or something, and they express wonder about how it’s always ‘right now.’  Then they flirtatiously smile at each other like Jesse and Celine, then Mason ever so briefly makes eye contact with the camera, smiling, and we cut to black.  God it’s so good.

And the movie isn’t trying to make you think Mason has learned something grand about life.  Like his facebook rant, this discussion of how it’s always right now is itself just a moment.  Who he is in the final shot isn’t who he will be years later or even the next day.  It’s just who he is right then and there.  Maybe some people will find it cringe-worthy, but I thought it was perfect.  It’s always right now, yeah?

I have no doubt in my mind that my ‘review’ of this movie has done no service to the movie itself.  It’s my favorite movie of the last X number of years, so watch it if you somehow haven’t yet.

Up Next: A River Runs Through It (1992), Dogtooth (2009), Faces (1968)

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