My life. All of our lives, really: a review of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014)

My life. All of our lives, really: a review of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) September 8, 2014

Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s newest film, may be duly described as spectacular. The film was released in the summer of 2014 and stars Ellar Coltrane (as Mason), Ethan Hawke (as Mason Sr.), Patricia Arquette (as Olivia, Mason’s mom) and Lorelei Linklater (as Samantha, Mason’s sister). If it fails to win Best Picture at the Oscars, I shall consider moving to Canada… or at least to Austin where I could perhaps bunk up in one of the many guesthouses on Linklater’s nearly 40-acre plot of land a few miles outside Austin.

Linklater is a one-of-a-kind director. His range in film is broad spanning the food documentary Fast Food Nation (2006), to the warm-hearted School of Rock (2003) starring Jack Black to the stoner’s favorite Dazed and Confused (1993). Though he has some twenty films under his belt, he’s perhaps best known and most loved for his romantic Before trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. This series includes the “hyper-verbal” Before Sunrise (1995), the I-feel-bad-for-wanting-this cliffhanger Before Sunset (2004), and the most realistic of them all, Before Midnight (2013), with its portrayal of love grown up and grown old. Though nearly twenty years elapses between the release of the Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, still Boyhood eclipses this trilogy. 

Again, this film is spectacular. It is a spectacle in both senses of the word. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a spectacle can refer to “a visually striking performance of display; an event or scene regarded in terms of its visual impact.” In another sense, a spectacle (though normally in the plural “spectacles”) can also refer to a pair of lenses or glasses, designed to help you see something not readily seen.

First, Boyhood is a spectacle because never before has anyone attempted what Linklater accomplishes. Though there are 9 years between each of the Before flicks spanning a total of 18 years, Boyhood is composed of shots taken a few days each year over 12 consecutive years. That’s right: it took a dozen years to film Boyhood. Take a moment to consider the patience and the risk of such a venture. What if one of the actors quit after year 7? What if Ellar Coltrane (playing star role) turned out to be a terrible actor? What if one of the central actors died? Linklater and his producers took a huge gamble and they hit the jackpot; they’ve created a masterpiece.

The film truly is unique. There are plenty of films that chronicle the life of its protagonist. There is no other non-documentary film that follows the same person for 12 consecutive years. You literally watch the central character, Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) grow up from a 7 year old boy to an 18 year old young man. We, of course, also witness the development of every other character cast for the film. This creates a distinctive sense of life – the actors and their acting evolves. They progressively bring something new and distinct to their character because each year the actors themselves are different people. As with many of his other film, Linklater’s screenplay and script serve as a sort of skeleton, which is reworked and enfleshed by the actors input. The actors’ lives merge with the characters they portray, adding a new meaning to the idea of character development. It is a marvel to behold.

Boyhood is also a spectacle in the other sense of the word. Though at first glance this may seem to contradict the notion that the film is spectacular in the first sense just mentioned, perhaps the most amazing thing about the film is that hardly anything amazing happens. Nothing particularly spectacular happens in the film. Sure, there’s a bit of drama. There is some struggle. Mason’s life isn’t one marked solely by peaceful repose. He is primarily raised by a single-mom who continually falls for the wrong guy – guys whom Mason refers to as the “parade of drunken assholes.” Still, on the whole, Mason is a pretty well adjusted kid. Even if he only sees his dad every other weekend and even if his mom is absent a lot because she’s a single mom working hard to get her degree or working to pay the bills, it’s clear that both of his parents really do love him and he knows it.

Mason’s life in Boyhood is not marked by tragedy or triumph. He’s just a normal kid who has some good friends, who drinks sometimes, smokes sometimes, has a part-time job washing dishing in a restaurant, and who really likes to take pictures. Mason is a normal kid on the journey of discovering himself and his place in the world. This is hardly the stuff Hollywood blockbusters are made of. 

In general, there’s actually very little about Mason or the plotline of Boyhood that is particularly compelling. And, this in no way detracts from the movie. In fact, it’s the very thing that makes it so. The genius of the film isn’t so much about what it shows on the screen. The genius lies in the power of what’s on the screen to show us things about ourselves. The film is a spectacle in that it is a lens through which we can look at our own life in order to discover and rediscover meaning. Let’s be honest: our lives are not exactly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters either and yet, they mean the world to us and are profound and infused with tremendous meaning of their own. Boyhood helps you find the meaning in your own story.

One of the ways the film accomplishes this is by being filled with paradigmatic scenes that comprise the typical experience of growing up. These include: the first girlfriend or boyfriend; the first heart break; a confrontation with a bully; moving to a new town and being the “new kid”; the awkward “birds and bees” talk with your parents; the first day of college; the freedom that comes when you or your friends begin to drive; fighting with your siblings even though you love them; your first MLB game; the conversation with that one teacher who really cares about you and inspires you to do and be better; the process of discovering what you’re passionate about; the realization that your parents aren’t perfect and don’t know all the answers either; and, of course, everyone remembers receiving their very first 22-caliber rifle.

Boyhood also filled with loads of cultural references that would resonate with kids who grew up contemporaneously with Mason. Perhaps most powerful for me, in this regard, is the soundtrack which included some of the most popular songs of the past decade spanning Coldplay’s “Yellow,” to Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again,” to Lady Gaga’s “LoveGame,” and Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used to Know.” It also includes some Beatles, Dylan, and Pink Floyd’s because we can also remember our Beatles, Dylan and Floyd phase… or at least I can. I mean, who can’t remember sitting alone in their room thinking that David Gilmour articulates the adolescent angst I’m feeling in this very moment when he sings:

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

Hearing some of these songs actually took me back to particular scenes in my life. Hearing Coldplay’s “Yellow” at the start of the film took me to my first of many road trips with friends up to the Adirondacks. Oddly enough, hearing Britney Spears took me back to freshmen year math class with Mr. Schwartz because I had a Britney Spears sticker on the back of my graphing calculator. In addition to music, Linklater includes a treasure trove of cultural references that serve as place markers along the journey through boyhood. Some of the gems he includes are the old school computer game Oregon Trail, the release of a new Harry Potter novel during a showing at a movie theater, the process of figuring out your feelings toward Facebook, and President Obama’s election to name a few.

The most amazing thing about the film is that, while viewing it, you cannot help but recall each of these paradigmatic scenes in your own life. In recollecting the episodes in your own, you cannot help but begin to string together the narrative arc that is your life.

There is one scene that best captures the film. It is the conversation Mason has late one night with his dad about magic when he’s a little boy. While getting ready to fall asleep on the couches in Mason Sr’s bachelor-ish apartment, Mason asks his father: “Dad, there’s no such thing as real magic in the world, right?” His dad asks what Mason means and he responds by saying he means magical things like elves in the real world. Mason Sr. tries to convince his son that the real world might actually be full of magic. He appeals to the blue whale as an example. He asks Mason to consider how a person who had never heard of a blue whale might think it’s a magical creature if he actually saw one. He describes the whale as having a heart with arteries large enough that a man could crawl in them and the sonar they use to sing to one another in the ocean. “That’s pretty magical, right?” he asks. To this Mason responds, “Yeah but right this second, there’s, like, no elves in the world?” Mason Sr. quips: “No. Technically, no elves.” Both Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke are brilliant in the scene. There’s magic in the mundane. 

Despite my well deserving, effusive praise, there is one critique worth mentioning. The film includes one shitty scene (pun intended). The context of the terrible scene centers around a Hispanic handyman working on some plumbing repairs around Mason’s home. He convinces Mason’s mom, Olivia, that the septic line is broken and needs to be replaced by a higher quality pipe. Olivia obliges and tells the man, “You’re smart. You should go to school and get your degree.” Fast forward a few years, near the end of the film, Mason is out to lunch with his mom and sister. Low and behold that very very same Hispanic worker approaches the table, only this time he’s the manager of the restaurant. He explains that he took Olivia’s advice, went to night school, got his degree and is moving on up in the world. He tells them their meal is on him and then departs while offering them some extra cheese with their meal, saying: “You’re mom’s a smart lady, you should listen to her.” The inclusion of this scene is a shocking anomaly and a surprising lapse of Linklater’s artistic instinct. Everything else was wonderful, but this was so strange. Poor form, Linklater.

In the end, the most poignant line of the film presents us with a choice. Just before Mason heads off to his first year of college, his mother is overcome with grief when she comes to terms with the reality that her life hasn’t progressed as she was expecting. It is a truly heart wrenching line. Overcome with the disappointment with her life she says, “I just thought there’d be more.” With this film, as with our very lives, this scene highlights the choice we have. We have a choice: Will we discover the magic, even if nothing very remarkable happens? Or will we overlook the spectacle that it truly is and say “I just thought there’d be more”?

When it comes to Linklater’s Boyhood, perhaps nothing truer could be said than this: the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I think the same is true of our lives.

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