“You don’t want the bumpers, life doesn’t give you bumpers.”
Movies are, in my humble opinion, the most complete art form. They coalesce as a holistic vision incorporating colors and sounds and feelings into one journey that unfolds before our very eyes in a way that nothing else is capable of. Boyhood is a seminal piece in filmmaking, and not only is it director Richard Linklater’s magnum opus, but it is this generation’s masterpiece. Countless years from now, if cinema has all but disappeared and been replaced by whatever new form of entertainment peaks society’s interest, people will be able to look back on this sprawling epic and remember, or imagine, the past in vivid detail and brutal honesty. I’ve seen more films than I can count, and far more than I can even recall all of the basic plots. Here is a film that’s truly unlike any other. This is a committed and historic achievement, not only in film, but in storytelling altogether. You know those moments you’ve had? The ones that change and shape you and make you grow as a person? Boyhood is one of those rare, fleeting, defining pieces of time.
Spanning twelve years, Boyhood follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18. He and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) live with their Mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Samantha is the A Plus student while Mason is an artistic young boy more into collecting strange items and playing video games. Through weaves of time we meet Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). The man is an inconsistent yet passionate presence in the lives of his children. The movie has received universal praise, and the only negatives I’ve read have been that it’s another tale of growing up from the male perspective. That couldn’t be more wrong.
Disregard the title. This is a movie about a family, about the people and friends and acquaintances that come and go. Sure, Mason is the main character. There has to be one. But Boyhood shows us everything from different perspectives. We see what it’s like to be a single parent struggling with two young kids and have them eventually leave you. We feel the pain of a father being denied the chance to spend time with his children. We relate to a girl blossoming into a young woman and the trials that come with it. And alas, we watch an immature boy become an independent man. All of our lives, whether we like it or not, have the same three points no matter the length, the quality, or the setting. A beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what we’re granted. It’s not hard to watch this movie and feel as if you’re watching that same story from different vantage points. They’re us and we’re them.
With this film, Richard Linklater solidifies his place atop the American moviemaking totem pole. No one is better at conversational dialogue, and none bring us into the movies as much as he does. It’s hard to watch his films and not be totally engrossed, utterly in the moment. You get the feeling that he’d be the laid back and subdued person in a group of friends. He probably just listens and observes, soaking in every word and detail of the present. So much of this movie doesn’t matter at all. But it all has weight. Like a scene with young Mason explaining his childish yet still reasonable logic on breaking his teacher’s pencil sharpener by stuffing it with rocks. “Because I needed them for my arrowhead collection,” he says. That makes zero and complete sense all at the same time. It’s beautifully authentic writing.
The movie was shot for about one week every year for twelve years, and Linklater said the script evolved organically based on the current time. The brilliant soundtrack amplifies this effect with time specific tracks, the hairstyles and wardrobe all fit to a tee, and even the slang and language used informs us of the time period we’re being shown. It’s amazingly detailed, and has to be. There are no title cards telling us the year has changed. Instead, it’s left up to us, and it feels like we’re just meeting our friends again for the first time in months and noticing the subtle and dramatic differences in them and their surroundings.
Olivia marries and divorces multiple times, falling for the successful drunk and the overly stern military man. Samantha goes into teenage angst and resentment. Mason Sr. does a one-eighty on his single father carefree personality. And young Mason turns into the typical anti-everything questioning teenager searching for answers but refusing to accept any solution except those that fit his narrow worldview. This probably isn’t helping describe the movie at all. It’s so extraordinarily ordinary that words don’t seem to do it justice. I was in a state I like to call “happysad” once it finished. You’ll feel fortunate to have gotten to know these people, and believe me, you really do. Still, you’re left emotionally wounded, because the movie is over and you don’t want them to exit your life as quickly as they entered. The overall story is fairly commonplace and the acting, save for Arquette and Hawke, is pretty average. But really, doesn’t that just describe us all? Boyhood penetrates and awakens you. You’ll be more alive once it has finished.
My mother has told me a story from when I was little dozens of times. I could barely walk, went downstairs and turned on all of the kitchen lights, somehow managing to get a cup full of juice in the process. And then my Aunt found me. Middle of the night seated in the La-Z-Boy, illuminated by the TV screen. Chucky was playing. Instead of being scared, I sat there fumbling my sippy cup, radiating the screen’s glow against my infantile skin. I haven’t been able to look away since.
I only share that story because this film affected me so deeply. Movies have always been my love. And they have generously loved me in return. They’ve been there in the good times, like seeing Madagascar and mustering up the courage to hold hands with the first person I ever really loved. And in the bad times, the temporary sunspots of melancholy, sunken to a low and watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the hundredth time to be reminded that, “No man is a failure who has friends.” It will make you laugh, cry, think, and relate to a family of absolute strangers all in two and a half hours. It proves that cinema is not dead, that new and inventive ways are still out there for us to tell stories. Few things can be described as perfect, and this is one of those rare cases. Boyhood is the ultimate celebration of life.
“The moment seizes us.”
Rating: 5 out of 5