Much has been made about Richard Linklater’s latest film, a quick return to cinemas after last year’s Before Midnight, which completed a three-film series beginning with 1995’s Before Sunrise. Surprisingly, it could be argued that Boyhood carries more ambition despite spanning a shorter timeframe compared to the Before films. While filming a group of people over a number years is not an entirely original premise (see Michael Apted’s Up series, or even the Harry Potter movies), Boyhood takes a form that distinguishes itself in that we cover 12 years over the course of a single, 164-minute film. Much has also been made about the near-unanimous praise of the film. Let’s be clear, Boyhood is not a perfect film. In fact, it’s about as perfect as the thoughts in our heads or the birthmarks on our skin. The beauty in Boyhood lies in the stumbles just as much as the triumphs. Some scenes work better than others, and everything is not tied up neatly in the end (some scenes in the final reel seem the most out-of-place). But the great films are those that are debated and dissected for years on end. That’s Boyhood; a film of the ages, for the ages.
While the film (and its title), centers around Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltraine) as he grows from age 6 to 18, each of his family members also undergoes an individual transformation of sorts. Mason’s dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), have been divorced for some time. Without custody, Mason Sr. picks up Mason and his daughter, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) each weekend in his sleek Pontiac GTO, serving as the free-spirit parent to counter Olivia’s sterner, less-adventurous approach. As the movie progresses, however, he matures and imparts to his son the kind of wisdom he neglected in his earlier years; that the “loss” of freedom so cherished in our youth does not mean a loss of our values, and that true independence means being ok with our lives when they do not go according to plan.
But the most compelling journey through a personal Boyhood is Olivia’s, played by Arquette with such subtle nobility and never overextending into the personification of an ideal. She makes a handful of lifestyle-changing decisions over the course of the film, some of them with horrible consequences, but she never loses sight of who she is, even when facing the demands of single parenthood. She returns to school to earn a graduate degree, becomes a college professor, and ultimately makes a lasting impact on her students. It is a transformation that aptly discards our society’s disposition that parents must entirely put their children first.
With a film so hinged upon the development of its protagonist, it seems necessary to discuss the performance of Ellar Coltraine in the leading role, and though he is mostly serviceable as Mason Jr., some scenes in the latter half do not ring with the same authenticity the film has conditioned us to expect; most notably in Mason’s high school years when he begins to pontificate about our existence and what the future holds. Considering the incredible risk in casting a 6-year old for a 12-year project, Linklater could have done a lot worse with his protagonist.
Linklater is not content to re-explore the hallmark moments seen in most coming-of-age tales: the first kiss, getting a driver’s license, or senior prom. Instead, we bear witness to the aftermath of seemingly important events, whether it is the family gathering after Mason’s high school graduation ceremony or Mason finding his mom lying helpless on the floor after an abusive encounter. In our lives, we must face what comes after a heated argument, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one; time we do not mind glossing over or entirely skipping when we go to the movies. In Boyhood, the characters are not necessarily men and women of action, they are creatures of consequence. Near the end of the film, one character remarks, “Do we seize the moments, or do the moments seize us?”
Similarly, the progression of time is not clearly laid out for us. There are not frequent overlays designating a new year in the story or how old the characters are. Instead we discover it based on the music playing, the movies discussed, and the gadgets used. Linklater argues that as much as we are made up of all that has happened to us, our society is equally defined by what we leave behind. Olivia moves her family numerous times across Texas for a handful of reasons, each time leaving belongings that don’t fit in their car or are unnecessary in the next phase of their lives. But is a sculpture not simply the result of a number of subtractions from what was once a full block of clay?
Like a fistful of sand that slips through our fingers, our time mostly consists of the moments that fall inconspicuously in-between the landmarks in our lives. For some that may be a harsh reality while to others it is a comfort. Linklater does not take a stance on one side or the other. There are moments when you will not want the movie to end. Not because you care to see what happens next, but because you simply want to be there when it happens. And yet, our heart goes out to Olivia when she looks back on her life and laments, “I just thought there would be more.”
So what is it all supposed to mean? Mason asks a similar question of his father before leaving for college, and Mason Sr. probably wondered the same thing when he was his son’s age. We have values, passions, and vocations that are of little-to-no consequence to a majority of people on earth. The only thing we really share is time, and the notion that all our lives are fleeting. So when Mason Sr. replies to his son, “We’re all just winging it,” there’s really no other guidance needed. To quote The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current,” mostly in moments of banality, but nevertheless in the same river together, inching closer towards a shared destination.