Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins
MPAA Rating: (for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use)
Running Time: 2:46
Release Date: 7/11/14 (limited); 7/18/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 17, 2014
Here is a film that captures the essence of memory. No one in Boyhood is remembering the events on screen. There is no narration, and the protagonist is not having flashbacks to earlier times in his life upon reaching a significant milestone or experiencing the pangs of nostalgia that come as we get older. The concept of memory is simply inherent to this story, a loving ode to growing up in a suburban lifestyle—and to growing up in general. The film covers 12 years of a boy's life, which writer/director Richard Linklater filmed using the same actors over a 12-year period.
It's a gimmick, to be sure, but an essential one. During one scene late in the film, we spot childhood photos of the boy in the background of one shot in a two-shot setup. In the other shot, there is the same person a decade later. The scene itself—a conversation about future plans between a mother and son—is nothing extraordinary, but we catch our eyes wandering to those photographs.
Suddenly, this is it: This scene is the culmination of everything that has preceded it. Then we start to realize that almost every scene in the film has had a similar feeling attached to it, simply because Linklater has allowed us to observe a human being transforming into the person he will become. Every moment in this boy's life—no matter how seemingly insignificant it may be—is one of becoming.
The boy ages from 6 to 18 in a relative flash over the course of the two-and-three-quarter hours of the film. Those who mourn that the kids grow up so quickly are proven correct, as Linklater and editor Sandra Adair move from one year to the next without any buffer. There are no titles explaining how much time has passed. We do not even have the benefit of fade-outs and fade-ins, as Linklater makes direct cuts from one period to the next. In one moment, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a tiny youngster, and in the next, he is a scrawny pre-teen. Time is marked by growth spurts and hair length and the deepening pitch of his voice.
As one would expect, there are other major events in the film, but Linklater's screenplay bypasses them all. The boy's mother (Patricia Arquette, in a heartbreaking performance as a woman who only knows how to try her best and is always fearful that it isn't enough) is married twice over the course of the story, but we never see a ceremony or a reception.
There are no first days of school, and there is no momentous realization that he will be going on to high school. When his graduation from secondary school arrives, we're only allowed witness to the aftermath—a party where the most important people in his life, as well as a few who might not have seemed so vital when he first met them, gather to celebrate his accomplishment. We don't see him walk to the podium to get his diploma, flip the tassel of his graduate cap to the other side, and throw the cap in the air.
Isn't this how memory operates? We know these milestones happened. We might recall a few, specific moments within them, but these landmarks of life quickly become broad ideas instead of precise memories. Perhaps we forget them because of the commotion of such events or some kind of chemical overload within our brain that occurs because of the mixture of extreme emotions.
Perhaps it's simply because they are one-time affairs that really don't mean much on their own. They signify something much deeper, and they also serve as markers to an uncertain future. A wedding is just society's official start of—in theory, especially as is the case here—a life-long commitment that already has been made to one degree or another. It doesn't reflect anything about the marriage that the ceremony commences. Bad weddings can result in great marriages, and memorable weddings can lead to devastating marriages.
It doesn't matter whether Mason's mother had good weddings, because Mason's recollection is of the routine that came after them. Everything eventually becomes a routine. Her first marriage to Mason's father (Ethan Hawke), which ended in divorce before the story begins, results in his father's sporadic visitations to Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and a barely-heard fight between his parents from the kids' bedroom window. He also overhears an argument between his mother and a boyfriend, who scolds her for using her children as an excuse for not going out to have fun whenever he wants her to. He is not in the picture after that—and rightly so.
Mom's second marriage—to one of her college professors (Marco Perella)—is highlighted by the growing realization that the man is an alcoholic. We see him buying liquor for company that never comes, and in the next scene after Mason's revelation, his stepfather has stopped hiding his drinking from the family and started to make a drama out of their crooked glances. That experience later defines his mom's third marriage—to an Army vet (Brad Hawkins)—in Mason's mind, as the boy who is now a young man notices the beer cans stacking up next to his new stepfather on the porch.
These people and others leave Mason's life almost as quickly as they enter it. In the film's first year, the family moves, and the final scene is of Mason in the backseat of the car watching his best friend riding a bike. The friend raises his arm to wave goodbye, and just as we're registering the gesture, the kid disappears from sight as reeds take up Mason's field of vision. People exit our lives without resolution (This is especially true of Mason's stepbrother and stepsister, who are left with an abusive alcoholic for a father, never to be seen again), but they leave some mark. At one point, the friend shows him a lingerie catalog featuring photos of scantily clad women. Does Mason think of this whenever he believes he has fallen in love?
We are constantly watching these characters grow—learning from positive experiences and, as Mason's father hopes for his namesake, the mistakes. It's a cliché that the little things in life matter the most, but that's because it's true. A father-son camping expedition is no more important than a conversation in which the father—doing what any loving father would do—makes sure his son has the right directions for a road trip. A mother's exterior show of strength tells us one thing about how to live, and watching her cry when she realizes her children are leaving home teaches us something just as vital. Wisely and patiently, Boyhood creates a world of the little things.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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