Movie Review: Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater
Reviewed: 25 January 2015
"I just want to watch a fucking movie!" shouts the exasperated mom early on in the epic Boyhood when her babysitter cancels and a date night becomes ruined, and as I watched the film, I couldn't help but see the raw and real depiction of parenting in a way that I never could before becoming a parent. To become a parent has been such a life-changing event, and the unfolding series of moments where a parent does not know how to act and tries his or her best or admits confusion has the air, not of narrative, but of life and of truth. Richard Linklater's gift in Boyhood, his most majestic and sweeping film, is to capture the most prosaic and straightforward moments of a life and infuse them with the poetry of time. His work here is unlike any film that I have ever seen and deserves consideration as a masterpiece and completely in step with his Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy. And appropriately as a new parent, it was a film that I wanted to see when it came out but couldn't find the time and space to do so until it became available through renting it on my television. And even then, it was seen in two sittings.
Filmed over the course of twelve years, Linklater follows his core group of actors around Texas as a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) move from childhood to adulthood with their parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) pushing them, moving them, loving them, and living their own lives. Shot in small increments over the time and space from 2002-20014, Boyhood becomes a film obsessed with time and what it does to people, as the actors naturally age and Coltrane transforms before our eyes in two hours of film. It is the ultimate special effect, the sort of gut-punch that I get when I see a picture of myself from a while back or when I see a photo of my parents when they were young. Life goes on, and the film transfixes in its care to show us changes in culture, technology, communication, the long-term effect of the Iraq War, and even love.
There is a cliche saying that "You never know when you're making a memory," but in Boyhood, that becomes pushed to the forefront. The most mundane of days can become indelibly printed on our brains, just as the shock of wearing a new haircut to school can be as jolting as a first love. I expected the major life events like divorce, moving, and new schools to be traumatic for the children, but Linklater's deft camera and editing sometimes glides past and through major life events, showing the family survive through anything. Divorce does not define Mason's life or ruin him. He just encounters life experience, adjusts, and moves forward. Moving to new places results in new friends and memories. People come and go in life while the family stays. A tense family dinner with an alcoholic family member plays itself out. A potentially violent encounter in a new school's bathroom lingers, and I couldn't help but flashback to my first day at public high school, getting offered cigarettes in the back of Mr. Sibley's English class or an older Track runner bending my arm back and slamming me down on the hood of his car. The immediacy and smell of danger haunts, even though I haven't thought about it for years.
Sandra Cisneros, another great artist from Texas, has a wonderful line in her short story "Eleven": "What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are — underneath the year that makes you eleven. " She's on to something in the sense that we never grow up. We always are who are, and the act of looking in the mirror can be shocking whenever we allow it to be. I always think of my parents as looking a certain way, maybe it’s the way they looked when I was in high school and last lived at home with them, or maybe it’s the way that I see them in certain photos. I think about myself in certain terms, and then see the shock of grey hair in my beard, the wrinkles in the face, the visual signs of aging. I think about my boy Gus, in the watching and marveling at my fifteen-month-old son learn to smile, laugh, stand, walk, run, and now climb. Every day, we bear witness to the unfolding of life in its own grand and quiet way, many times unaware.
Mason is always every single version of himself in this film as are we all. I'm still the frightened, insecure sixth grader that I was in 1989, homesick at Camp Freeland Leslie Boy Scout Camp and nervously unpopular. I'm still the freshman at Kenyon College, reading a James Bond book outside McBride Hall, wondering how I would make friends in such a strange place. I'm still the first-year teacher in his first real job at McReynolds Middle School, ambitious and hopeful and totally unprepared for what the 8:30 a.m. bell would bring. We are the accumulation of our life experiences in the most total of ways, and Linklater's Boyhood pushed me to think deeply of growing up, family, being a parent, and seeing the world.
Like my other favorite film of the year Life Itself, Boyhood examines who a person becomes and how that happens but never in a reductive way. Some films are labeled important with a capital I and thus become tedious or something to dread. Not so with Boyhood. Linklater has made an important, deeply personal film that gives way to the universal, and his grand cinematic experiment and risk of telling a story in this way, pays off in it being the most graceful, poetic, and lovely film of recent memory, well-deserving of every accolade it has received.