“Boyhood” is stunning in its universal reveals, sheer filmmaking achievement.
Life is a collection of small moments that rarely add up to large ones. Very few of us will have a time when we stand against the world, battered by the storm, to be counted among those who have left a mark on history. More often, a collection of small pieces of time is the only way to derive meaning in such a short existence.
From our own perspective, we have large moments that change who we are, but those come from an impression, a memory of the events that changes in significance through the passage of time. If someone watches from the outside, they will only see the inevitable or the understated segments of a life full of normal progression.
Richard Linklater’s much-lauded film “Boyhood” allows us to watch these moments for ourselves. Filmed over the course of 12 years, using the same actors, we see the characters change and grow in real time over the length of the project. Many of the reviews so far have praised the technical achievement of the film—the scope of a planning a 12-year film shoot is a staggering thought, indeed.
But more than that, this film features a rawness of emotion and a genuine beauty that transcends a potentially gimmicky premise. The story isn’t told over 12 years just to prove that could be done; it is told over 12 years because the story requires it. Despite being an achievement in modern filmmaking, the film’s heart is found in the sublime elegance of the ordinary.
The film opens with six-year-old Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) looking at the sky. He shares a room with his irritating older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and they live in a small house with their mother. His father is somewhere in Alaska. We see flashes from his perspective: his listening in as mother argues with her boyfriend about babysitters, his delinquent tendencies as he sprays graffiti in a storm drain with an older neighbor, his quiet acceptance of the loss of a friend as the family moves to Houston when his mother seeks more opportunities through education.
These moments increase and change as Mason grows older. He moves from house to house as his mother moves from relationship to relationship, maturing and experiencing the world through the misunderstanding and heartbreak. But there is joy as well, in the visits with his father or bonding with new step-siblings. As it is with everyone, there are beginnings and endings, some more sudden than others, but all shaping him into the person he is at the conclusion of the film.
Mason and his sister are unwilling nomads in the journey of survival that is single parenting. Their mother does her best to provide, but she keeps falling for the same types of men: the deep, but unavailable who self-medicate to hide from some buried pain. Mason’s father is not necessarily absent, but neither is he present. He appears as the fun parent, the understanding dispenser of advice and emotional support that vanishes at the hint of responsibility.
There is certainly an element of disdain on the side of Mason’s mother towards his father, which is used as an excuse for distance. Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) has the freedom to live in Alaska if he wishes. His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) does not. As with most single-parent families, the burden of parenting falls to the mother, who does the best she can.
The story is a common one, a fact of life for many families across the country. But the facts of Mason’s life are not his defining characteristic. Instead, he is a combination of these things, an amalgamation of Olivia and Mason Sr., of Houston and the other places he’s lived, of Samantha and all of the friends he has left behind.
One of the more striking elements of the film is how short the 12 years seem. We watch scenes of Mason Jr. spending time with his friends, referencing the world around them, from Halo to Lady Gaga. I remember these things as being very recent, but for Mason they are eternal staples of a long and complicated childhood.
What is a flash for the observer is an eternity for the participant.
As Albert Einstein would say, “That’s relativity.”