Still Life: The Portrait of Time in ‘Boyhood’

Boyhood sets itself the daunting task of reflecting the breadth of a human adolescence, but it instead reveals that it is in life's minutia that we find the most meaning.

Cinema began with a gamble.

In 1872, experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge was tasked with settling a bet. The former governor of California, Leland Stanford, had made a wager over the long-debated mystery of whether or not a horse, while in full gallop, ever actually took all four of its legs off the ground. It was a query that had fascinated people (enthusiasts of the minutia of galloping horses, mostly) throughout history. The human eye, trapped in experiencing the world around it at one constant, inalterable speed, was simply unable to see for itself what was going on amidst the blur of a horse’s legs in motion.

Identity is fluid. Stasis is an illusion. We mistake our own nature from our imperfectly temporal point of view.

Muybridge accepted the challenge, and soon captured the proof – a photograph in which all four of the horse’s feet were indeed lifted from the ground at once – settling the bet. He had captured a moment in time, heretofore imperceptible, and suspended it (literally) in place. Within the frame of that image the horse hung in the air, never to touch the ground again.

Muybridge’s horse

Over the following few years Muybridge continued experimenting with the mechanics of photography to capture movement, refining his equipment and techniques. Then, on 15 June 1878, having set up an elaborate series of trip wire mechanisms along a race track, he took two dozen images in a row of a horse galloping by, its full run cycle captured in one sprint.

When he developed the pictures, copied them onto a disc, and ran them inside a machine he had invented called a Zoopraxiscope, he could watch the horse’s run, reanimated. What he had created, in effect, was the first moving picture – a direct precursor to cinema. To the same human eye that had once been baffled by the blur of a horse’s legs, this technology gave the illusion of motion.

It was a discovery that revealed the irrational nature of the medium it would spawn. The image of that galloping horse, moving in place and yet snatched from time, showed that ultimately cinema is just a captivating lie. It’s just 24 still frames shifting quickly enough to mimic action. Stasis in motion. An exploitative trick upon the ephemeral nature of our temporal experience. The horse itself, meanwhile, had sped straight through and in between those pictures it was still moving, uncaptured, in the spaces between each shutter snap.

Thirteen decades later, director Richard Linklater utilized the medium Muybridge had inspired to make a similar exploration into the experience of time with his extraordinary film, Boyhood.

Boyhood had every reason, and pretty much every opportunity to fail. It too started as a gamble: was it possible to make a film that observed a young actor actually growing into adulthood in front of the audience’s eyes, condensed into a two hour span? It was an audacious idea. Outside of Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentary series, largely untried. In narrative film making, this was wholly unprecedented. Moreover, however, as a work of artifice, it was an idea that could have easily dissolved into mere indulgent gimmickry.

Leaning back into the brazenness of that conceit, the film could have given in to the lazier impulses of most any other director. It could have wallowed about as a voyeuristic, slice-of-life oddity; an ambling, conceited filmic essay, stuffed with tracking shots of people going about their daily routine, punctuated with images of tortured symbolism, so that the director could show off everything he learned in film school about cinéma vérité.

Similarly, it could have just embraced a paint-by-numbers three-act structure and tried to force some artificial shape upon human experience: a quest for self-awareness; a terrible family secret; some trite parable about overcoming adversity. It could have tossed a bit of hackneyed Sturm und Drang in the final couple of years to squeak some guaranteed tears out of the audience and show that the kid, Ellar Coltrane had developed real acting chops over the intervening years.

Oh, how easy it would have been to throw in a cancer scare; a teenage pregnancy; a funeral. No doubt the film would have guaranteed itself a bag full of plaudits for its audacity, and garnered a bunch of lame articles gushing about how it is a celebration of the human spirit to overcome the trials of adolescence, blah, blah, blah. It could easily have been a film that flashed fast and loud, and receded back into the wasteland of forgotten Oscar chum. (Anyone remember The English Patient anymore? …anyone?)

Instead it’s a masterpiece.

Most films affect you superficially. They make you cry and laugh and sigh; but the impact is fleeting. That’s not a criticism, by the way – affecting anyone emotionally in any way in the space of a mere two hours is an extraordinary feat. But frequently it’s that initial reaction that the filmmaker is primarily trying to evoke; a straightforward empathetic ride that they are focused on stirring into being.

Here’s the happy bit, where everyone is just a little too hopeful and giddy so you let your guard down; then the sad bit, with the maudlin music and the close-ups and the darker lighting, so you can invest in the character’s sorrow and cry; only to be followed by the inevitable lightening of the fog, that uplifting denouement that will tie a bow on the strife and reaffirm the beauty of existence.

When it’s done elegantly, it can be an impactful (if not always particularly illuminating) ride. The story beats play out a logical series of events that feel united, each operating as a necessary stepping stone toward a larger narrative arc that feels complete.

Boyhood, in contrast, is not about arcs, but moments.

It sets itself the daunting task of reflecting the breadth of a human adolescence, but rather than obsessing over histrionic events, trying to force the experience into some familiar filmic sequence of despairs and triumphs, it instead reveals that it is in life’s minutia that we find the most meaning.

By selecting Ellar Coltrane when he was six years old and placing him at the centre of a film that would take 12 years to shoot (filming for a few weeks every summer until he was 18), by using his and his co-stars’ own growth and experience to inform the development of a script that Linklater ensured remained fluid and open to adaptation, and by concentrating not upon the most explosive or ‘theatrical’ of experiences, but rather the beautiful minutia of daily experience, the film ensures that the organic experience of growth and change – physically, emotionally and ideologically – is built into the fabric of every scene, suffusing each interaction.

Sure, there are disturbing themes of alcoholism and abuse and bullying and heartbreak in there, all of which color the experience, but they are not the centerpieces of these lives. We don’t see Mason (Coltrane) discover that his girlfriend has cheated on him; we visit the aftershock, squabbling over pre-purchased prom tickets, when the sense of outrage has soured to a stale, petty wallowing. We don’t attend his father’s wedding to his new wife; we spend time waxing lyrical over Beatles tracks in their new minivan.

And even during the film’s most intense sequence – the breakdown of Mason’s mother’s second marriage to a violent drunk – Linklater lingers more in the confusion and bewilderment of such a menacing scenario. With the violence largely occurring off-screen, glimpsed but not personally experienced, we instead watch the children, uncomfortable in their skin, being forced to pass off bad checks to a shopkeeper, chafing under a barrage of passive aggressive insults, or waiting together in a bedroom, reassured by each other’s company, waiting hear what their future is going to be while watching Funny or Die clips online.

It’s these ephemeral experiences that so easily get lost in the recollections of life that the film is consistently more concerned with cataloging. The best friend you sort of remember hanging out with when you were six, before you moved towns; seeing him for the last time, disappearing behind you on the road, as you were being driven away. Those kids you knew who were in a bad family situation that you never heard from again; wondering about them every once in a while. That one time you went to the butterfly sanctuary with your dad. The taste of mustard on your hotdog at the baseball game. The look on your mother’s face when she knew you’d been drinking.

It’s for this reason that every naturalistic piece of contextualizing bric-a-brac that litters the film likewise takes on a larger resonance, each firing off their own nostalgic ping in the viewer. Every new iPod and Xbox game; every Harry Potter book launch, glimpse of a Dragon Ball Z cartoon, or reference to the hunt for WMDs in Iraq; every new hair cut, style of dress, or that spectacular soundtrack echoing each passing year, localizing and distancing at once – it’s all a reminder that we too are perpetually evolving creatures moving through time, our existence a cluster of moments impossible to reclaim, but that we carry with us in our every interaction.

Mason grows into a photographer, seemingly like Muybridge, trying to bring stillness and formality to the flux of existence; but it’s the impossibility of that goal, and the inexorable, nagging longing that goes on fueling it nonetheless, that Boyhood ultimately attempts to reflect. As the film’s final scene elucidates, life – real life – isn’t ultimately about action and agency. It’s not about seizing a moment; it’s about the moments that seize you. It’s about the way in which we move through an endless shifting series of transitory and transformational experiences, some heartening, some sombre, some glorious, but many beautifully tedious and dull.

Mason is gradually made manifest in this film – we watch him grow from a quiet, introverted boy stretched out on the grass and staring up at the unfathomable expanse of the sky, into a college freshman peering in wonder at the untrammeled potential of adult life ahead. But this is by no means the whole story of him; nor us. Life moves beyond the still frames of his photographs. Just as life moves beyond and around the frames of this film.

Life keeps on.

People fall in and out of our lives. Children grow, faces change, personalities can shift. Sometimes not even memory can be relied upon. Like Muybridge’s horse, we flit unseen between the spaces of film, the afterimage captured revealing something of who we are, but failing to encapsulate the whole. We are not the fixed points we naively believe ourselves to be. Identity is fluid. Stasis is an illusion. We mistake our own nature from our imperfectly temporal point of view.

While Muybridge concentrated upon the infinitesimal experience of time, splintering it into fractions; Linklater explores it on a macro level, as a broad, grand, sometimes sloppy, amorphous web. One approached it scientifically; the other emotionally; but both revealed time, and life, to be inexorable, ineffable. More precious, and swirling, and vast than can be caught through a lens.

Linklater’s film is not a time capsule. It doesn’t speak to us from the past, or about the way we were. It speaks of us as we are. Malleable, transitory beings. Propelled forward, always scrambling to keep up, feeling each moment as it breaks upon us, a birth and a death in one.