Youth Not Wasted: Boyhood
The first time I saw Richard Linklater's Boyhood, it won me over within 30 minutes of its almost three-hour duration—around the time that Ethan Hawke shows up and gently subverts the deadbeat-dad role we've been set up to expect from him. His kids—the film's protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter)—haven't seen him in over a year, but when he comes back into their lives, it's full force. He is engaged, enthusiastic, and in love with his children. They forgive him immediately, and so did I.
Small surprises like that, which almost always result from Linklater & co. erring on the side of compassion for these characters (and the characters erring on the side of compassion for each other), make Boyhood a delight. But it is also a movie mired in mundaneness. The lives we watch are unremarkable, a lot of the dialogue is just sharp enough to not go unsaid, and in terms of humor, it rarely induces more than chuckling. And yet, I cared. So much. I was mesmerized by these characters, I felt like I could continue watching them live out their pretty-OK lives for another three hours, at least. I couldn't really tell you why I cared, just that I did.
When I saw Boyhood this week for a second time, I liked it even more, and ultimately concluded that watching people grow and age onscreen is a profound experience in itself. Linklater famously filmed Boyhood over the course of over 11 years—from the summer of 2002 to October 2013. More than the specifics of these lives—and the movie is an extremely specific portrait of one Texas boy's life, to the point of being only vaguely relatable at any given time in my experience—the passage of time is the greatest inroad to empathy that Boyhood provides. It's also among the greatest inroads to empathy that I've ever experienced while watching a movie, period. There's never been a gimmick like Boyhood's, in terms of concept or effectiveness.
Coltrane was 7-years-old when shooting began and watching him and everyone else grow older and more awkward (and then less) and more wrinkly and fatter endears you to these people in ways deeper and more moving than in most movies. Maybe you never were or even knew a straight boy in Texas with divorced parents and an annoying older sister, but you've watched time pass, and you've seen its effect on other people. Boyhood presents a compressed version of one of the only universal truths within the earth's wide range of human experiences. This, I think, more than anything, is why people are responding so strongly to it. I was at a party last night with some fellow writers, and all who had seen it were gushing about it (and those who hadn't were gushing with excitement). I think Boyhood is going to be huge. I think it's going to be a thing. A big, cultural thing unlike any we've seen in a while.
Because it charts growth, starting at childhood, Boyhood has been compared to Michael Apted's Up series of documentaries, but more than that, it reminded me of the work of Frederick Wiseman, whose institution-based documentaries are always about more than what their blunt titles suggest. The Store, for example isn't merely about the flagship Neiman-Marcus and its corporate headquarters, it is about life in 1982, class divides, and the ensuing ridiculous hair. So too does Boyhood work as a broader cultural study, pointedly touching on pop cultural relics of the past decade. Linklater is particularly obsessed with technology, and consequently, how fleeting newness is (check those Razr phones and that Gameboy Advance SP). At the same time, there is a matter-of-factness to the references, which range from Dragonball Z to Funny or Die's The Landlord to Wilco's "Hate It Here" to beer pong, that could virtually only exist when you capture something in its moment. There's no bad aftertaste of crass retroism in Boyhood. This movie massages your inner nostalgia, but gently.
Gently is also how it handles the maturation of its characters. By the time Mason's mom, played by Patricia Arquette, runs down a list of life milestones as he's about to walk out of her apartment and head off to college, you realize that we've actually just spent three hours not watching GREAT BIG EVENTS onscreen. We don't see Mason's first kiss or loss of virginity or him taking his first picture that leads to him pursuing a career in photography. We see the effects of these things, just as we see them in our friends, family, and the people whose lives we closely follow. We are not so much omniscient as voyeurs, just like in life.
The most amazing effect of this amazing endeavor is getting to watch Arquette grow as an actress. Remember when she was just awful, when she'd just open her mouth and words would come out with the enthusiasm of a 2 x 4? (Think Lost Highway. Think A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors.) That's where she is at the beginning of the movie, and by the end, she is natural, settled into her own skin as an actress, just as her character has settled into her own skin as a mother. Somewhere along the way (during Medium?), Patricia Arquette became a fine performer, and Boyhood captures that.
The only critique I have is that the movie wraps up with a trio of scenes in which characters start to ask big bold questions about what it all means. During the last exchange of theirs that we see, Mason asks his father, "So what's the point?...Of any of this? Everything?" The answer is specific, but at least grounded by uncertainty. The movie ends on a conversation between Mason and a new friend that's even more on the nose regarding the passage of time and the constancy of now. It puts too fine a point on a movie that is already so sharp, and dictates a little too much bold-faced profundity to an audience that has already absorbed so much of it by then.