(Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2014)
Time Has Told Me
With Boyhood it’s tempting to solely focus on director Richard Linklater’s unprecedented achievement of chronicling one fictitious boy’s journey through adolescence over the course of an actual twelve-year period (and doing so wouldn’t exactly be reductive as this work represents an astounding feat of filmmaking), but the film is fortunately – not to mention unsurprisingly, given Linklater’s past work – much more than its attention-grabbing construction. But, given this striking singularity in narrative fiction, it’s worth devoting a few words on the matter.
Fresh off the ruminative wanderings of Waking Life, Linklater assembled a troupe of actors as either crazy or brilliant as he willing to commit to a twelve-year experiment. I say ‘experiment’ here because while the completed Boyhood is a rare and unusual piece of art in 2014, it must have been even stranger trying to explain what it may or may not become back in 2002 when filming began. The four principal actors came together once a year for a few days at a time to shoot more scenes allowing these two adults and their two children to quite literally grow up onscreen. And, as Linklater couldn’t have predicted what kind of young man newcomer Ellar Coltrane would become, neither a traditional script nor even a basic plot were necessary. In a way, then, time wrote just as much of Boyhood as Linklater did.
In short, the finished product is a triumph of contemporary cinema. The footage Linklater shot over the past twelve years has been thoughtfully and lovingly compiled into one cohesive story of a family as its members struggle through the ups and downs of life. At film’s end, it’s remarkable how decidedly unexceptional young Mason’s life is. Familial drama is no stranger to cinema’s vast history, and most memorable stories hinge on climactic or life-altering events. And, while Mason’s family does experience its fair share of tumultuous moments, none of these is used as a major plot device or final act reveal. Instead, eschewing traditional narration, Linklater allows his story to wander, taking numerous detours that give each year of Mason’s life almost an episodic quality – each like a short story nearly contained within itself.
Over the course of Boyhood’s near three-hour runtime, we become comfortable with these stops along the way. The faces of Mason and his family become familiar as the signs of aging on full display give us the feeling that we’ve known them for some time. And, the sense of this rather ordinary life that Mason leads – almost certainly intentioned by Linklater in the film’s deliberate construction, his decision to keep Mason a fairly normal teenager, and Coltrane’s subtle and deceptively casual performance – helps Boyhood feel all the more relatable. It also makes Boyhood an altogether personal and emotional experience without ever slipping into overt sentimentality or without offering neatly packaged endings for its characters.
This last point is important in understanding why Linklater’s film remains more impressive than merely its “twelve years in the making” tagline. To be sure, Boyhood has a cinematic quality to it – welcome trademarks of its filmmaker are sewn into its fabric. But, its refusal to bow to the norms of filmed familial drama gives it a realistic quality missing in much of mainstream American cinema today. Ethan Hawke’s Mason, Sr. disavows the notion of becoming the absent father cliché, and even without a typical onscreen revelation, his character does avoid falling victim to these narrative devices and matures into a responsible family man himself. Patricia Arquette’s Olivia receives no dramatic closure as the last time we see her she’s in tears and questioning her own significance while Mason prepares to move to college. It may not be immediately satisfying, but it bolsters the realism of the situation: oftentimes we do part ways with the ones we love without having resolved much at all.
Too, from an aesthetic perspective, Linklater’s decision to forgo title cards to announce the elapsing of time in favor of seamless transitions allows us to get lost in the narrative and rely on our memories of these characters to adjust our frame of mind. (Brilliantly, Linklater helps us out quite a bit littering his film with pop culture reference points – an annoying wake up call to “Oops I Did It Again,” an elaborate Harry Potter book release, Motorola Razrs, an era appropriate soundtrack – that make Boyhood even more nostalgic for those of us who came of age during the early 2000s.) In the first of such transitions, Olivia packs up her two unwilling children and moves them to Houston to start a new life. Their packed car pulls into the parking lot of their new apartment complex, then the scene cuts to a shot of Mason and Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) bursting into their room. Did they just move in or given the room’s put-togetherness, has some time passed? When we see that Mason’s hair looks a bit longer, and Sam has grown a few inches, we realize the latter must be true. And, so, Boyhood unfolds in this way: never announcing its gradual transition through the years, but allowing us to infer change through the physical growth of these characters and through events both implied and spoken.
Furthermore, most of the major events that the characters experience occur off-screen. Weddings, births, divorces, graduations, and break-ups all happen, we are told, but we’re rarely shown. Linklater, it seems, is more concerned with the way in which these events shape his characters than how we might feel experiencing them firsthand. It’s a bold decision; one that risks losing his audience to more readily satisfying or entertaining films, but one that ultimately pays off immeasurably. Yes, Boyhood is an artistically conceived film that winds up achieving relevance without trying with a premise for the history books, but at its core is the wholly relatable, deeply felt, and entirely engaging story of a boy becoming a man. In the end, we don’t rejoice because Mason has accomplished so much or because he overcame so many obstacles, but because we can rest assured that he’s going to be okay. He made it through such a crucial and formative part of his life, and we watched it happen – we experienced it with him. And, for that accomplishment alone, Linklater’s Boyhood already deserves a spot amongst the greats.