The reason I know film is important, and worth dedicating my life to watching, writing, or making film, are for movies like Boyhood. Almost every movie I see (especially in theaters, a setting that remains the closest thing I have to Church) makes me feel something, or inspires me in some way, or has a scene or a line, that for a moment helps the world make sense. Films connect people, and Boyhood has an unsurpassed ability to do so, thanks to its brilliant construction and the unwavering vision and dedication by writer-director Richard Linklater, actors Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater and the rest of the cast and crew.
Richard Linklater, alongside Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, is the poster boy for the early 90’s independent filmmakers that burst onto the scene thanks to the eruption/mainstreaming of Sundance and their rebellious, profane and off-kilter attitude toward society and our precarious place in it.
There are very few filmmakers who have such a distinct style, flair and emotional motif in their work that are instantly recognizable. Richard Linklater is one such auteur. Linklater has a varied and robust resume, but his films almost always present painfully authentic characters existing in a precise snapshot in time, over a 24 hour period, or over a lifetime/romance in the case of the Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Slacker, the film that put Linklater on the map, was a film that depicted a day in the life of shiftless 20-something’s in Austin. Dazed And Confused adopted the same tact with high school students in the 1970’s. Linklater has dedicated his career to exploring the maxims of the coming of age genre, to subverting it and relishing the fact that no matter where we’re from, when we’re from or how old we are, we’re all perpetually coming of age.
We’re all looking for meaning and direction in a world that lacks it. Growing up doesn’t have a universal scale, or barometer, and never stops. With Boyhood, Richard Linklater launched an experiment to explore all of these themes but on a grander and larger scale, by capturing one boy’s upbringing. Over twelve years, Linklater and his crew captured moments from Ellar Coltrane’s life, a boy cast for the role of Mason when he was just six years old. They would interrupt his life, and the life of the rest of the cast and crew, once a year until Ellar was 18, in a process that became more collaborative as Ellar grew older. In so doing, Richard also captured his own growth as a filmmaker, and the evolution of a mother, father, son, sister and their relationships with one another, pop culture and politics.
Over these twelve years, we basically see it all. Mason’s first kiss. First beer. First joint. First love. Step dads. Switching schools. Moving away from friends. Sibling fights. A grudging sibling respect. High school graduation. College. In many ways, Boyhood unfolds like a checklist of life events, as if Linklater wanted Mason and his family to experience everything. It’s emotionally exhausting and certainly overwrought, yet because the movie feels so big (yet always intimate), it works in making the film universal. Every year, or every moment, will ring true to someone in the audience. In most cases, it’s going to ring true to everyone in the audience.
Thanks to its unique narrative, Boyhood is an oftentimes hilarious snapshot of pop culture, be it Samantha annoying her brother by singing “Oops I Did It Again,” or Olivia reading Harry Potter aloud to their children, or some good old-fashioned Houston Astros era Roger Clemens worship, or a campfire discussion about another Star Wars movie and how that would never happen.
While the film is called Boyhood and every jump in time revolves around Mason, it’s far more than that. This family journey is about Motherhood, Fatherhood, Parenthood, Adolescence, Adulthood and growing up and growing apart, and not just for the kids embroiled in the narrative.
We all know Mason Sr. (a transcendent Ethan Hawke) the moment we see him, a father who had the misfortune of having a child when he was still a child himself. He lives in a grungy apartment with his slob roommate, still clinging to the dreams of rock ‘n roll and sticking it to the Man. He loves his children and wants to be a part of their lives, but not to the detriment of his own. His transformation from “cool” Dad who’s never there to probably what Mom wanted him to be, just 20 years too late, is a familiar one, but no less gripping.
Olivia is a single Mom struggling to make ends meet, but the inciting incident for the entire movie comes when she decides to uproot the family to Houston, where she can go to college, and the kids can be closer to their Grandmother. Over the course of the family’s odyssey, Olivia makes so many mistakes, particularly with the men she allows into her children’s lives (“a parade of drunk assholes”), but we never stop understanding, or feeling for her struggle for a career and autonomy.
We’ve seen versions of all these characters, or moments, or archetypes before, and there’s something familiar and cliche about Boyhood, but the film cuts deeper than that, and transcends it, truly exploring why these societal roles exist, and why they’re brought to life on screen over and over again. This isn’t an easy film, it’s uncomfortable and entirely too real.
There are many moments when an adult, be it Mason’s Mom, Dad, Step-Dad, Professor or “Role Model,” attempt to impart some sort of arbitrary wisdom onto Mason. But it’s clear that it’s all bullshit, advice that is well-meant (or otherwise) that really hold no truth. Richard Linklater doesn’t have the answers, and neither does your photography teacher, but we should never cease trying to search them out, and never stop listening to what other people have to say. Perhaps because of this, or in spite of the parade of BS he encounters, Mason grows up to be an inquisitive and thoughtful young man, almost tortured by the lack of meaning in the universe. He’s an existential, thoughtful kid who lives in his head, and can’t live in the moment.
Of course, that’s nothing shrooms and college can’t cure. Boyhood captures the feeling of helplessness and the meaningless of the universe, while also being overwhelmingly optimistic and hopeful. Boyhood is an unflinching and genuine portrait of life, and an absolute treasure to experience.
There’s an incredible scene, in a sea of them, where Mason asks his father if there is magic in the world, a question every kid wonders about, whether they grew up reading Harry Potter or not. His Dad, for once, has a perfect answer, describing the existence of whales in such a way that sounds magical, proving that language, perspective and nature is magic, and that’s before considering the myriad of whale metaphors in literature. While magic doesn’t exist in the way an 8 year old boy wants it to, there is magic to discover in this world. Some of that magic can be found in Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s most profound and exciting achievement in a career full of them.
Boyhood is one of those movies that will make you call your Mom and Dad after, in tears. It’s one of those movies that you’ll want to tell everyone about immediately afterward, while also not wanting to tell anybody, because it’s special to you. It’s every movie…but unlike any other movie ever made.