‘Boyhood’ and the Transcendence of the Everyday

Boyhood returns to the view that originated with Italian Neorealism: documenting everyday life is the biggest spectacle one could capture on film.

“Here / Are my place and time / And here in my own skin / I can finally begin”

— Arcade Fire, “Deep Blue” from The Suburbs

Although it might be premature to anoint Boyhood as Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, it clearly represents an inspired distillation of all his prior work into one film. This film, like most of Linklater’s work, revolves around a simple concept that announces itself during its final scene as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) sits perched atop some rocks at Big Bend National Park with a girl he has just met at college. Having ingested peyote, they watch the setting sun paint the sky into a series of pastel blues and reds. The desert landscape opens before them like their budding futures. The girl comments, “You know how everyone is always saying, ‘Seize the moment’? I’m kind of thinking it is the other way around: the moment seizes us.”

Mason nods in agreement as the camera gradually moves closer towards them, as if immersing itself deeper into the moment. The couple exchanges furtive glances at one another, their mutual attraction palpably developing between them until finally locking eyes and then looking away with askew smiles. The screen goes black with Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue” playing. The song’s lyrics, cited above, further punctuate the immediacy of the moment and the promises it holds.

This scene is a beautiful cinematic moment that one expects from a seasoned director where inspired camera movement, acting, and setting converge. But what launches Boyhood into the realm of the profound is its ability to see how even the routine moments that constantly wash over us but go by unnoticed through the daily course of our lives cumulatively hold the very essence of our beings.

This desire to sink into the present as intimately as possible has been a concern throughout Linklater’s career. In an interview with Cineaste, Linklater comments, “Time seems to be the building block of cinema. It is the clay of the art form. As I’ve approached narrative, I’ve always felt that the boundaries to be pushed in storytelling had to do with time in some way” (Fall 2014, 22). His concern with time often takes on Italian Neorealist dimensions within his work. Just as famed Neorealist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini always envisioned making a film of an ordinary person’s life in real time where the character’s mundane actions exposed his/her very core, many of Linklater’s films occur within the discrete unit of a day or close to real time: Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), Suburbia (1997), Tape (2001), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013).

What has marred many of these earlier efforts was their tendency to drift into Romantic self-adulation and self-indulgence. This can be most clearly witnessed in his first film, Slacker, which tracks in one continuous shot the alternative community of Austin, Texas. At the moment of its release in 1991, the film seemed revelatory in its documentary-like style that dove into the currents of Generation X. To this day, it is a far superior film to more studio-based fare of the time, such Singles (1992) and Reality Bites (1994), both of which contort its Generation X characters into stock roles and a formulaic plot.

Slacker embraces and clearly identifies with its characters. This was important at the time when Generation X generally lacked recognition in popular culture, although grunge was on the verge of exploding over the airwaves and the cinematic efforts of New Queer Cinema directors like Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes were being championed on the underground scene. Watching the film 23 years later, the alternative community Slacker presents seems belabored in its self-styled hipness and exhausting in its relentless assertion of its independence. The movie’s youthful affectations are worn on its sleeve that makes it both an increasingly endearing yet tiresome work as one gets older and returns to it. In many ways, it anticipates Generation Y’s reclamation of hipster life that has taken root in certain gentrified sections of Brooklyn, Atlanta, and other cities. It is a distinct work of a twentysomething mindset, even though Linklater was the ripe old age of 30 when he shot Slacker.

His later films moderate the romanticizing of youthful exuberance, but do not entirely place it under control. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset both chronicle the budding attraction between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). They mutually idealize one another during their endless talks and affectionate looks since the newness of the relationship has not yet had to enter and endure more sustained interactions. These interactions, where daily foibles can gradually grate upon one’s nerves and appreciation, at times threaten to become subsumed by routine and neglect.

This idealization in both films is tolerable, however, since we are watching only a brief swath of time between an intelligent and likeable couple. One could argue that only with the third installment of the trilogy, Before Midnight, after Jesse and Celine have been married for nine years, has Linklater finally broken from the aura of an all-encompassing Romanticizing that permeated his earlier work and finally entered into chronicling the nitty-gritty details of navigating day-to-day life that reaches brilliant proportions in Boyhood.

Elements of this earlier Romantic vision still appear throughout Boyhood, but they are often undercut or at least tempered by the intrusion of the routine. For example, as Mason and his milquetoast girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) scout Austin for an apartment to live in during college, we have shots reminiscent of Slacker and Before Sunrise. We watch the couple pass by quirky street performers who play music and dance in hula hoops. They ascend to a rooftop to watch the dawning sun as Mason holds her close before they kiss. But the next scene has the unexpected arrival of a roommate interrupt their sleep as they occupy Mason’s sister’s bed in her dorm room. They peek out from behind the sheets as they awkwardly explain their presence. The harsh sun of daylight and routine intrudes upon the earlier idealized moment.

An idealized image of Mason Sr.’s relation with his kids.

Similarly, earlier in the film we watch Mason’s dad (Ethan Hawke) play with Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). The sequence is shot during the magic hour, bathing the kids and father in golden sunlight as they play hide-and-seek by a statue and run down a hill together. He demonstrates to them both how to properly throw a football. This is the land of Normal Rockwell and his sanitized visions of American life. Yet during the Astros game, Mason suddenly asks, as kids are wont to do: “Dad, do you have a job?” Pragmatic reality rears its ugly head once again.

In many ways, Mason’s question nods towards the underlying thrust and strength of the film: after one’s dreams have been deferred or at least dramatically altered in unpredictable ways, how does one endure, persist, and continue to take care of the ones s/he loves and maintain a meaningful life? Through its 12 years of filming, Boyhood, unlike any other film I have seen (with perhaps the exception of the UP series), reveals how our lives change not in one clean break or dramatic moment, but rather incrementally, usually without us even noticing.

Although we never see Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) during his early 20s, one can rightfully assume he was not unlike one of the many hipsters we witnessed in Slacker, who envisioned a career in music with accompanying fame, women, and money. We now catch him repurposing his musical ambitions as he writes songs for his children with his roommate and later with his wife.

During his preteen years, Mason questions his dad: “I thought you were a musician.” Mason Sr. replies, “Well, life gets expensive.” But the film shows how the necessities of life and parenthood don’t mandate the jettisoning of music altogether, but a more realistic reappraisal of its function. He now uses it to draw the family together and relate his love for his children. Mason Sr.’s musical ambitions might be considered a failure by some, but his use of music becomes all the more profound as it integrates itself into his daily life and becomes a vehicle of intimacy between the ones he loves.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette), the kids’ mom, serves as the backbone of the film. Rarely has a studio film so comprehensively documented the grinding tasks of motherhood and the disproportionate amount of emotional and physical labor placed on women in a sexist society.

Some critics have wrongly suggested that the film portrays Olivia as the least sympathetic character, as she occasionally inappropriately breaks down before her children or drags them through what Mason Jr. later refers to as a “parade of drunken husbands” after her divorce with Mason Sr. However, to consider the humanity embodied by Olivia and her actions as unsympathetic reveals the utter cluelessness behind such critics’ understanding of what defines parenthood. As Linklater notes during an interview, “Most of us parents are probably technically bad parents because we do drag our kids into areas where we wish we hadn’t and something happens. It all kind of happens, and you can judge it retrospectively. But don’t.”

Olivia is the most beleaguered of the characters since she hasn’t even had the time to allow her dreams to take root. As she explains to an unsympathetic boyfriend early on in the film: “I would love to have some time for myself. I would love to go to a movie… I was someone’s daughter and then I was someone’s fucking mother.” She has been so contained by the role of motherhood that she enters a near existential crisis by the time Mason leaves for college, as she no longer has the children immediately present in her life. She breaks down as he packs his belongings: “My life is gonna go, like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. Getting divorced again… You know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral.” As Mason tries to calm her, she insist that he leave as she reflects, “I just thought there would be more.”

Parenthood, the film reveals, is both an immense burden and a sense of intimacy and identity. In an earlier sequence before her breakdown with Mason leaving for college, she confronts Mason and Samantha over breakfast with their need to grow up. Although the children are both in college, they revert to their earlier childlike selves as their mother announces that she is selling her apartment and ridding herself of their belongings. Mason asks, “What about Christmas?” Samantha complains, “I can’t believe we’re moving again.”

Olivia corrects her that she is the only one moving since the kids have already moved out. When Samantha whines, “How am I supposed to do laundry?”, Olivia informs her about the function of laundromats. This sequence balances the later one of Olivia’s breakdown by baring the dialectical desires of parenthood: wanting it to end immediately and at the same time futilely wishing one’s children would never grow up.

Like life, nothing dramatic happens in Boyhood other than routine daily events and periodic banal milestones: marriage, divorce, going to college, sex, and the like. The film shows an immense faith in its script and its actors’ abilities to transmit the nuances of the mundane. Subtle gestures tellingly expose the essence of a character. For example, during Mason’s high school graduation, Mason Sr. congratulates and thanks Olivia for the great work she has done with raising the kids. She comments, “Thanks for saying that. I never thought I would hear you say that.”

Mason Sr. further comments that he would like to assist her with paying for the graduation party. When he opens his wallet, however, he discovers it has no money and has to ask his current wife for some. As he leaves to get the money, Arquette’s face encapsulates both the intimate frustration and familiarity with Mason Sr.’s actions: good gestures but often lacking the substance of follow-through. He has both changed and remained the same. Just as he seems to have moved to a more compassionate and thoughtful place, Mason Sr. still reveals the persistent qualities that most likely led to their divorce in the first place. In a single moment, Boyhood encapsulates the deep love, affection, and frustrations that define Olivia and Mason Sr.’s relationship.

As Linklater comments during a Q&A session between him and the actors included on Boyhood‘s Blu-ray special features, he had the benefit of 12 years to constantly work and rework on the film. He would incessantly return to the film’s earlier material after later shooting took place. He notes how he removed an inappropriate transition between year one and two of filming while he was currently filming year ten. This precision of editing defines the film as it employs discrete moments of a family’s life to comprehensively relate the emotional, intellectual, and artistic contours that define it.

Furthermore, the actors’ 12 year relationship with one another translates an intimacy among them rarely seen on screen As Lorelei and Ellar got older, they increasingly contributed to defining their characters such as Ellar’s interest in photography being incorporated into his character’s similar interest. Typical of Linklater, the script remained open enough so that all the actors could contribute material and harnesses the details of their own experience into that of the characters. We witness their familiarity in a DVD extra called “The 12 Year Project” that has the actors interviewing one another from the first year until the last. It provides a remarkable window into their changing understanding of the film and their closeness with one another.

Boyhood, needless to say, is a remarkable achievement. Linklater’s logistical ability to keep the same body of actors working with one another for 12 years, as well as making a visually and narratively coherent film, speaks to both his strength as a director and his cast and crew’s ability to match his ambitions. Above all else, it is the film’s faith in documenting our everyday actions without having to resort to trite formula and regimented action sequences that speaks to its true brilliance. The film reminds us that cinema, at its core, is about human relations, and when done well, it transcends anything that expensive pyrotechnics and CGI can provide. Boyhood ultimately returns to the impulses that originated with Italian Neorealism in its insistence that documenting everyday life was the biggest spectacle one could capture on film. The radical quality of cinema is its ability to translate life onto the screen unlike any other medium. Everything else is just secondary.