I was about to start off by saying “Movies like Boyhood…” and stopped myself. Because there are no other movies like Boyhood. There are other films about a boy coming of age, there are other films about a child becoming a man, there are other films about domestic life and problems. About adolescence.
But none do what Boyhood has done.
The closest parallel is Michael Apted’s Up series, but that’s a documentary. Doing a similar thing with a group of actors and actual real-life children playing parts has never been done. The miracle is that it works so well. The miracle also is that the film is a deeply profound experience, a musing on the nature of time, and “ain’t it funny how time slips away,” and how there is no ultimate meaning except for “the moment.” That’s the key, isn’t it. The key to how to live a good life. Embrace the moment. Easier said than done, but Boyhood makes you actually feel that in a very real and visceral way.
An audacious project, carried out basically in secret over a 12-year period, Boyhood was shot in distinct small chunks over the course of those 12 years, so that we actually see the little boy in the poster grow into an 18-year-old kid. The cast remains the same: Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the parents, and Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as their children. Linklater does not make a gimmick of the concept. It unfolds as naturally as, well, life. He does not give us year-markers as delineators, he does not explain that it is now a year later, we just get it because the kids’ hair is different, their heights are different, the stories on the news tell us where we are in time, the parents’ are different, older.
Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason (Ethan Hawke) are divorced when the film starts. They have two young children, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). Olivia has full custody, basically because Mason Sr. is irresponsible and has decided to move to Alaska to “clear his head” and work on a boat and write some music. He roars into town occasionally, driving a black GTO (a hat-tip to Two-Lane Blacktop, one of Linklater’s favorite films), and taking the kids out for bowling and sleepovers. Boyhood is not conventional in its presentation (obviously) and not conventional in other important ways, in the same way that the Before Sunrise movies both acknowledges the rom-com tropes and then discards them, allowing the characters space to maneuver, to surprise us and each other. It is only when you see something like Boyhood that you realize how hemmed-in most characters are in other films, by the demands of the plot, by cliches, by assumptions being made about them.
Nothing huge or earth-shattering happens, but one of the ways that that works is that you realize/remember how intense life is on an everyday basis, especially for children, but for adults too. Mason Sr. says to his 18-year-old son at one point, “We’re all just winging it, man,” and that’s pretty much the size of it. Nobody knows what they’re doing. Everyone is just doing the best they can.
Life moves along in Boyhood. The years pass. Olivia and the kids move a lot, which means that Mason Sr. has to drive hundreds of miles sometimes to spend every other weekend with his kids. Olivia marries two more times, both times to guys who seem responsible on the surface, but who end up having drinking problems (in one case, a severe drinking problem). She says, self-deprecatingly at one point to her now-teenage son, “Obviously I enjoy making poor lifestyle choices.” Olivia is doing the best she can, and has gone back to school to get her Master’s, and ends up being a professor of psychology, beloved by her students, and influential in her community. It’s not a surprise that this occurs. She obviously keeps her nose to the grindstone, and works her ass off. We watch this happen, in distinct spurts, over the years.
Mason Sr. has his own journey to go on. He’s an attentive dad, he talks about the tough stuff (trying to engage his mortified teenage daughter in a conversation about safe sex, should she be interested in trying sex at some point), and we slowly see him “get his shit together,” although it’s not clear how good that is for him. He marries again, too.
The kids accept the changes in their parents’ lives, but there are also deeper unspoken levels of questioning going on, something that Linklater excels in. He doesn’t make too fine a point of it, he doesn’t underline themes, but the questions reverberate off the screen. What does it mean to be responsible? What does it mean to do your best? Are there other alternatives? Olivia seems pretty overwhelmed throughout, but she keeps trucking along, like any mother you’ve ever met, and she has her off moments, but in general, she keeps things moving, keeps it together. Early in the film, a guy she is dating clearly is giving her a hard time for “using” her kids as an excuse. She can’t just go out at a moment’s notice, she can’t find a babysitter last minute, and he is pissed off about it. She screams, “I was somebody’s daughter and then I was somebody’s fucking mother!!” There was no gap, no time for herself. A simplistic film would have made her comment seem villainous, as though the resentment of her role was a point against her. Linklater doesn’t work on the points system. That comment comes out of an exhausted and upset moment, and she loves her kids, but what she says is ALSO true.
Life is not either/or. There are very few ACTUAL “villains” in real life. The pleasure in Boyhood, and it takes some getting used to, is that nobody here is bad. Even a teacher giving Mason Jr. a hard time for slacking off in photography class is trying to get Mason Jr. to be better at his art. Be artistic but ALSO be responsible: both qualities will serve you well. It’s a great little scene.
The acting is unlike other acting in other films. It has a documentary reality, a sense that we are “visiting” these people over the years, dropping by periodically to see how they are doing. Sometimes they are doing well. Scenes unfold lazily, like a conversation between Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. when they’re on a camping trip. There’s no “point” to the scene, it’s a conversation between father and son that unfolds naturally, beautifully. They talk about Star Wars. They talk about school. They talk about life. They talk about everything. These are the conversations that make up the majority of most people’s lives, and yet it is so rarely portrayed onscreen!
The film is not lacking in drama. In one tense sequence, Olivia engineers a separation from her now-violent husband, and Arquette is absolutely heart-breaking and ferocious in her need to protect her children. But the real drama comes from the small, the everyday, the moments that make up the majority of our lives. Talking seriously with someone you have a crush on when you’re 15. How profound it is, how scary, how fun, how disorienting. The awkwardness between teenage siblings, how of course you love each other, but yuk, stay away from me. The growing awareness that you have a self, a self that is distinct from others, a self that is distinct from your parents, from other people, that you are You. And what do you do with that knowledge?
If you’re a teenager, sometimes it means dyeing your hair or cutting your hair off or dressing distinctly. These are not just surface things, they are a way to assert your individuality. Boyhood respects the experience of teenagers in a way that seems almost damn near revelatory, in today’s overly-sexualized and hostile atmosphere. Mason Jr. dates a girl, and they have serious conversations about their dreams, and about technology (he deletes his Facebook page, and they have a big talk about it), and about what they want to do with their lives. They also get stoned and have sex, because they’re 16 years old and that’s what goes on. It’s ALL true. She’s not leered at like some hottie cheerleader prize. She’s her own person. This is high school for most people. This is life and adolescence. It’s deeply serious to those who are living it.
There are scenes that left me wrung dry, there are scenes that are hilarious. There was one scene, a nighttime talk between Mason Jr. – age 8 or 9 – and his father – about “magic” – that left the audience HOWLING with laughter, laughter that kept going, on and on, into the next scene.
In that laughter I didn’t just hear how funny the exchange was. I heard a collective RELEASE. A sense of almost awed recognition that yes, yes, YES, life is like this!!, talking with an 8-year-old is like this, and how we NEED to see such things on-screen, how we YEARN for our lives to be reflected up there with more subtlety and sensitivity! It was truly cathartic.
One of the best films I’ve seen all year.
There are no comparisons. Boyhood is sui generis.
And if possible, see it with a crowd.