The production details Richard Linklater’s latest film Boyhood are often more widely discussed than the actual film itself – 11 or so years is long time to film after all. Though these details are integral to a rigorous understanding of the film it does sort of do a disservice to the content of the film. If you don’t already know, then Boyhood follows a boy called Mason from the ages of 5 to 18 but the actor who plays him – Ellar Coltrane – also grows up during this time. As do the rest of the cast. Just as it is an injustice to solely look at these behind the curtain details, it is an injustice to only look at the Boy in Boyhood. For it is not really just about Boyhood. It is about motherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, fatherhood and all the things in between.
What’s startling for such a huge, almost Sisyphean, task is that the film even partially works. Coltrane could’ve turned out to be a terrible actor, one of the main cast could’ve retired or passed away, the studio may have pulled the plug. It doesn’t just partially work though, it fully works.
Boyhood is far and away the best film I’ve seen all year (Sorry Lego) and while watching it I wasn’t thinking about all the complicated logistics involved with undertaking a task so monumental. I was invested in and thinking about the characters. Not just Mason, who is so wonderfully realised by Coltrane, but everyone involved. Mason’s mother struggle to raise little kids by herself, juggling that with finding love and a career is heart-breaking. Especially when the little kids don’t understand what’s happening, gosh what little brats we were. The abusive cycle that she finds herself in, and it is unknown why it always seems to end up that way.
It is an immensely loveable film, and it is very rare indeed that one falls in love with a film on first viewing. Boyhood realistic aesthetic allows it to show and comment on life in a nuanced, and touching way without feeling at all preachy. There is a scene towards the end where Mason is leaving for College, and his mother spontaneously burst out in tears and says “I thought there’d be more”. Sometimes life isn’t about finding the right words and arranging in the right order for maximum dramatic effect. Sometimes there are no right words and sometimes life doesn’t give you more. In the film, there are no great crises, no end antagonist, yet it offers something that it recognisable and relatable. Not just for the particular of the plot, but for the breathless, intimate and ineffable humanism on display. It’s relentless honesty and pursuit of truth never feels like anything more than Mason trying to find his way in the world. He grows up in phrases, even I had long hair over my eyes once, but it’s never shown to be a negative thing.
The film is long (2hr 40m approx) but it never feels long, in fact I could’ve stayed with these characters for eons and eons.
There is a slight focus on technology and music in the film, Mason plays with a Gameboy, then a Xbox and a Wii. His sister starts off by singing Britney Spears to annoy him. In these instances, it is not simply dropping various nostalgic brands in front of us and asking us to remember in an attempt to cheaply win over us. It is in service of the characters. Linklater shows us what technology and media meant for them contextually. In this way (and many others) Linklater looks with his characters, not at them. They also act as signposts of what time we are in, without obviously writing on screen “2002” etc.
It’s a celebration of the little things and the little changes in life. The unannounced gaps in time are shocking, just as it would be if you looked back on your life and how quickly things change. It’s unannounced in the film because it is unannounced in life. The children aren’t the only ones who grow up however. Mason’s biological dad, Mason Sr, starts off as the cool fun dad that gets to see them on weekends but over time we see that even he cannot hold on to his youth. He has to sell his cool car, get settled down, have kids and grow a moustache. Deep down though, we can still see glimpses of his youthful past. But in the beginning, we see him try and try to be a good father to the kids, and that’s what he turns out to be in the end. What Linklater seems to be suggesting, or at least showing us is that people are not static things. We are shaped by context, absorbing and sublating our experiences to form a self. Events come and go, people drift in and out. But they all add up to a luminous memory which helps construct and reconstruct our ideas of self.
I’ll stop talking about Synecdoche, New York eventually, but I’ll leave you with a relevant quote:
Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second.