Our lives are made up of individual moments, parsed out over individual minutes over individual seconds which, in the end, always seem too short and sadly succinct. There’s no great story arc, just lots of little ones, each playing out among the various personality pros and cons we develop and scatter like so many dandelion seeds into the wind.
By the time we are old enough to realize it, we only remember the epics, the instances where things changed radically for better and worse. Births, deaths, degrees, achievements, jobs, kids, diseases, divorces — these are the buzzwords we use as we spin our time into something more meaningful. In the end, though, those individual moments fade, failing to resonate as powerfully as a performance or a passing, a problem or an epiphany.
Richard Linklater‘s brilliant Boyhood is made up exclusively of life’s minor incidents. Telling the simple story of one family’s foray into human existence spread out of 12 actual real time years (more on this in a moment), the filmmaker best known for Slacker, Dazed and Confused, the Before Trilogy, and Bernie, dissects the details of little Mason Jr. and big sister Samantha’s daily subsistence, from fights at the dinner table to awkward silences among warring adults.
When coming of age movies are measured years from now, Boyhood will be the benchmark for artistic achievement and cinematic scope. It’s what Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life tried to be… and failed. Boyhood is the 400 Blows of its era, as important a statement for today as that noted New Wave marvel was 55 years ago.
As we said before, Linklater created this movie in real time. He hired three actors — Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr., Patricia Arquette as the mother, Olivia, and newcomer Ellar Coltrane (his own daughter, Lorelei, rounds out the family foursome) — and began filming, 12 years ago. The two name stars were in their early 30s at the time, while fictional siblings were barely six and eight.
Capturing select scenes over a few days over the course of the timeframe, Linklater was able to expose the actual maturation process both inwardly and outwardly. No make-up was used, no CG effects applied to render Coltrane younger or Hawke older. Instead, like a scripted extension of Michael Apted‘s equally amazing Up documentary series, we witness the actual aging process as it applies to performers and the characters they play.
Naturally, the title tells us where the center lies. Mason Jr. and Coltrane become the litmus test for the rest of the film. If he failed to engage us in his wide-eyed wonder/worry about the world around him and we could never care. At least, not for 165 minutes. Luckily, however, Linklater builds in enough recognizable elements that we soon see ourselves in everything that happens. Indeed, Boyhood quickly becomes an universal experience, a mirror upon which we can all sit back and reflect on those things that truly make us/made us who we are.
Early on, a group of boys paw at a Victoria’s Secret catalog, an acknowledgement that almost every male discovers sex through the pages of such a product guide. Later, Mason Jr. joins some “older boys” for some good old fashioned delinquency — and his first beer. From an uneasy admission to a parent over drug use to “the conversation” with a teacher who only has your best interests at heart, Boyhood borrows from everyone’s experiences to showcase the similarities we all share.
Samantha tracks an equally familiar path, playing the role of aggressor, arguing against decisions and defiant in her spoiled brattiness. Even better, she doesn’t really change, instead altering her stances into a kind of passive aggressive push we all recognize in our “spoiled” siblings.
For those concerned that this is nothing more than an impressionistic painting played out over a decade-plus, Boyhood does provide some manner of narrative drive. Mason Sr. and Olivia are divorced when the story beings, he trying the shake the label of ‘deadbeat dad’ while she enters into one dysfunctional, abusive drunken relationship after another. Indeed, Olivia seems drawn to men who will end up speaking (and sometimes, striking out) from inside a bottle.
Mason Sr., on the other hand, has dreams that will never be fulfilled. Initially, we see him hanging out with his struggling rock star buddy (played by a suddenly ancient Charlie Sexton) and talking about “writing” songs. In an instant, he is trying to be the responsible new dad with a doting wife and some Bible thumping in-laws.
Mason Jr. and Samantha’s stories are simpler. He has to discover what he wants out of life (to be a photographer, as it turns out) while she has to avoid the obvious pitfalls of being a female in these confusing times. Using music cues as the literal soundtrack to their lives, Linklater adds splashes of personal color, from clothing choices to hairstyles which clearly come directly from the stunt situation of its making. Even faux moustaches and attempted rebellion are reduced to what they are — phases — as we watch these two mature. By the time we get to the all important “adult” stage, nothing is really resolved. Instead, Linklater suggests a new beginning, Boyhood taken as it means, with ‘manhood’ just ahead.
While watching this, we unexpectedly become like the characters in the film. We forget the big impacts on our lives, and instead concentrate on the smaller things. We yearn to see the fresh face of a young Coltrane in the now slightly soured college age Mason, Jr. We want a return to those green Texas backyards, those hidden places between houses where the imagination can run free and we are given time to recall what formed us.
As we grow older, those hours suddenly shift into minutes which then turn into seconds. Before we know it, all that’s left are impressions. We eventually refer to them as memories, but over the long haul, many of those memories don’t represent the things we actually want to remember. Instead, they are just points on a map, dots we eventually connect when we’re feeling wistful. We’ve arrived at the destination, unsure of how we got there.