My Reflections on ‘Boyhood’

Somewhere along the line during my education I was taught that the best way to write to persuade is to express your opinions as statements of fact, and then use supporting evidence and information to explain to your readers why they should agree with your position. For the most part, that’s the kind of writing I do on FedRev. I generally try to take the “I” and “me” out of the equation, and put forward a reasoned argument based on facts. I take a position on a topic and build a case. But as I was watching Boyhood I knew I wouldn’t be able to take myself out of my analysis and that it would be impossible for me not to approach the material from a personal perspective.

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Boyhood is a film 12 years in the making. Writer and Director Richard Linklater cast a young boy and used a groundbreaking concept of filming the movie in short segments as the actor aged from childhood into young adulthood. A similar effect was achieved with the Harry Potter franchise, where we were able to watch Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grow up on screen in 8 films produced over 10 years. But the idea of intentionally making a single film gradually over 12 years to authentically capture the effect of aging, and having the vision, patience, and the opportunity to see it through, is unprecedented in film history. Perhaps not coincidentally, Boyhood contains several references to Harry Potter.

So much of this film felt familiar to me. Even though it’s about a child ten years behind me in age, the world he was growing up in was essentially the same one I experienced. Just like Mason in Boyhood, I too road my bike around my neighborhood with my friends, moved to a new house as a child, lived through some emotionally turbulent events at a young age, was bullied in the bathroom at school, and tried to develop as an artist, haunting my high school’s darkroom. I even came in 2nd place in a state-wide high school art contest, just like Mason did. And, just like Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, I always felt somewhat isolated, and had the sense, somehow, that something was inherently wrong with the society we live in. Even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, I was searching, and that’s really what the story of Boyhood is all about; searching for life’s meaning and struggling to find our place in the world as we grow up.

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Boyhood captures the process of surviving childhood with honesty and without a lot of sentimentality. It simply charges ahead through time, just like life does, without apology. A lesser film might have used clearly defined demarcation points to signal to the audience when one phase of life ends and another begins. There are no “One Year Later” or “Age 12″ title cards. Instead, despite being shot gradually over more than a decade, Boyhood is crafted as one cohesive piece; the years seamlessly blending together. The central gimmick of the film, the character aging, is barely emphasized. It just happens. Supporting characters enter and exit Mason’s life without any artificial Hollywood sentiment. One minute his mother’s second alcoholic husband is part of his life, and the next moment he’s simply gone from the film, never to be seen again. Even Mason’s mother, played by Patricia Arquette, gets a pretty unceremonious exit. In typical Linklater style, he doesn’t pander or feel the need to over-explain the details, he simply presents the reality of any given moment for what it is and trusts the audience to follow along without any unnecessary exposition.

Linklater is clearly interested in the subject of passing time, which is something I can definitely relate to. The universe and the concept of time and space is something that has always intrigued me for as long as I can remember, which is perhaps why several of Linklater’s films appeal to me on such a personal level. In addition to Boyhood, which was shot over many years, he is also the director of the ‘Before‘ trilogy, with 9 year gaps between the films, each depicting a single day in the life of one couple at various stages of their lives. But while the ‘Before‘ films weren’t designed from the start to be an ongoing document on love and age, Boyhood was intentionally conceived as a unique project, executed with a definite artistic vision, though lacking an overly pretentious attitude. Boyhood, while doing something daring and unique, manages to feel humble and grounded in reality. Linklater might be the anti-Wes Anderson.

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Though as much as I appreciate Boyhood‘s concept, it’s a film that causes me to feel a lot of conflicting emotions. There are many moments in the film that feel mundane and ordinary. As I was watching the film there were several moments where I found myself wondering why they made the final cut. Whole conversations seem to be about nothing of any major significance and there are long stretches of time where the central protagonist has very few lines and doesn’t even seem to be all that interesting of a character. In a film that’s almost 3 hours long, that can be a bit tedious.

But on the other hand, isn’t life like that? Not every moment can be a major life-defining event. Some things are just routine, everyday parts of growing up, like fighting with your sibling in the back seat of the car on a road trip. I’m sure my parents wanted to kill me and my brother when we did that, and Linklater makes sure to spend a significant amount of time on these “everyday” moments. So while in the moment I found some of these segments a bit tedious and maybe one of the film’s weaknesses, upon further reflection, perhaps they’re actually one of the films strengths. Even my initial reaction of being slightly bored with the main character makes sense. Mason is just a kid, just like I was, and a film about my life as I grew up might have felt a little mundane at times, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important and worth examination.

It just goes to show how conditioned we are to Hollywood formulas, where there’s no room for any “wasted” screen time, and everything in a script has to deliberately, and sometimes artificially, drive a narrative forward and manipulate the audience into feeling certain emotions at specific moments. Boyhood totally throws this mindset out the window and, like I said before, trusts the audience to hang in there throughout a more organic, natural experience. The film doesn’t tell you how to feel, it simply shows you one boy’s life and allows you the space to react to it on your own terms, as well as the time to reflect on your own experiences as you witness Mason’s.

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In a Hollywood landscape dominated by formula-driven films, Boyhood, like a lot of Linklater’s work, is a breath of fresh air. He’s a director whose career began by taking experimental concepts and presenting them in a very accessible, down to Earth manner. Dazed and Confused, the first Linklater film I fell in love with, perfectly captures the atmosphere of small-town, USA in 1976 and takes place on a single day as several kids contemplate their lives, and Slacker, his claim to fame, was a film with a huge cast of characters who briefly own the screen for a few minutes at a time before passing the baton to the next person the camera decides to follow, giving the audience a whirlwind tour of Austin, Texas. It’s a disconcerting experience, but once you get used to it, you suddenly realize the limited range to which most mainstream film-making is confined, and that disconcerting feeling becomes a sense of liberation. Linklater has never allowed himself to be confined. Even his more conventional films feel refreshing somehow, like Bernie and School of Rock, perhaps because they tap into a kind of universal humanity that we can all relate to.

In the end, I think my biggest issue with Boyhood is the way politics are discussed by the characters. Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, bashes George W. Bush, which is fine, but does so while encouraging his kids to grow up to vote Democrat. The film even has a segment in which a woman talks about how cute candidate Obama is while the children are putting Obama campaign signs in people’s yards. I suppose at the time those segments were filmed it wasn’t yet known how blatantly criminal Obama’s administration would be, but, given what we know now, those scenes leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I understand that people in real life are democrats who support Obama, and on one level the film is simply reflecting that fact, but I get the sense that Linklater got caught up in the excitement surrounding Obama back in 2008, and then failed to take the opportunity to challenge those views in any way as filming continued over the years. The way I see it, there’s really no excuse for this, given the now well-known abuses of the Obama administration, especially considering it would have been easy to craft a scene in 2012 showing how the “hope” of Obama had worn away.

But this aside, the film is an unprecedented and groundbreaking work of art. It’s raw and real, and yet refined and accessible. It’s simultaneously a challenge to sit-through and somehow very easy to watch, because it defies the standard formulas we’re so accustomed to and refuses to explicitly spell out every detail, yet it’s so natural and humanistic that the audience can’t help but connect with the film on a personal level. I know I did. And given the leap of faith Linklater took when casting a 6 year old boy, not knowing for sure how the child would develop as an actor as he got older, or even if he’d want to continue the project as the years went on, makes Boyhood a near miracle.

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The way Boyhood was able to capture the essence of what it was like to grow up in that specific time and place, and include a lot of details that make the cinematic experience ring true, while also making the film interesting and absorbing to an audience, is quite a feat. It manages to feel personal and intimate while simultaneously feeling universal. The mundane, everyday experiences of childhood are illuminated beautifully, and the dramatic moments are heart wrenching and real.

The magical experience of watching this film is that even though it’s a movie about one child’s journey into adulthood, it subtlety reveals how all of our lives are important, not only to ourselves, but to the larger fabric of the human experience. Life is something to cherish and celebrate, even while we struggle for understanding and search to find meaning in an infinite universe we’re only a tiny part of. Richard Linklater has somehow managed to bottle up that feeling and share it with everyone in the form of Boyhood.

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