Some Thoughts on Boyhood

The summer has been a busy one for me—largely busy with soulcrushingly monotonous tasks. Instead of writing 2000-word blog posts, I spent May writing a couple 10,000-plus-word papers. Instead of going to the movies every few days, I spent June and July watching bar exam lectures. Instead of finishing the third volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, I am pleased to report that I thoroughly studied and then immediately forgot on July 31 the minutiae of New York domestic relations law. But the bar is over, as is my post-bar trip to Peru, and I’m back to my normal routine. I shouldn’t complain too much, however, as the summer’s true hero is my cousin Nate, who has bravely soldiered on despite my inability (and despite his requests) to provide fifteen minutes’ worth of extra reading material to help his work day pass a little less slowly. I hope this review finds him well. My Spanish has improved (an incredibly high bar to clear), my film analysis likely hasn’t, but I finally got around to seeing Boyhood (timeliness is still my forte) with my girlfriend Taylor about a week ago.

It met expectations.

What isn’t shown. I’m guessing most reviews of the film* have discussed that Boyhood skips some of the usual beats you’d expect a coming of age movie to hit. At over two and a half hours, Boyhood sure doesn’t lack in scope, which perhaps makes its avoidance of some hackneyed clichés that much more admirable, or at least surprising. Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), the titular boy whose ‘hood is on display, isn’t shown losing his virginity, getting drunk for the first time, hitting a game-winning homer in Little League, or other milestones a typical bildungsroman following a kid from ages six to eighteen (as Boyhood roughly does) would probably cover. 

*I haven’t read any reviews of the film but the Slate Spoiler Special on Boyhood did discuss this stuff.

The story choices hinted at above were clearly the conscious decision of the film’s director, Richard Linklater. On several occasions, Linklater uses suspense briefly but heartstoppingly, flirting with some clichés before letting a scene play itself out or inserting a punchline. At one point, a young Mason scores an invite to hang out and drink in an unfinished basement with some “cool” high school seniors (they aren’t that “cool,” as one of the younger invitees notes, because they’re hanging out with eighth-grade or freshman-age guys), and the attendees start karate-chopping wood and throwing blades around. Taylor and I heard virtually every cotheatergoer of ours hold their breath for a second or two, surely this sequence of events would lead to a trip to the hospital, which would lead to a nice opportunity to impart an explicit life lesson. Not so. The scene ends naturally, or at least we’re given no evidence of someone bleeding from his carotid artery. A later scene had a similar effect—Mason’s sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), now a college student, conspicuously announces that she’s sick, but thankfully she’s not pregnant, just really hungover.

Avoiding these clichés, playing with the audience’s expectations—Taylor and I decided Linklater has made something like an anti-coming-of-age film.

What is kinda shown. The title might imply that we approach Boyhood solely through Mason’s eyes, but conceptually boyhood isn’t limited to boys. Boyhood instead is symbiotic with sisterhood and parenthood (and grandparenthood, and we could keep going), too, depending of course on your unique situation. Linklater acknowledges this truth by subtly staging the film’s point of view. Yes, it is largely seen from Mason’s perspective, but it is rarely first-person, a choice which allows us to empathize with Samantha’s thoughts and feelings, as well as with their divorced parents’ (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). Because know neither Mason nor Samantha as adults, much is left to the audience to intuit using our own experiences. Consider an early shot from the kids’ bedroom window of Mom and Dad yelling, where we don’t hear a word (nor do Mason or Sam) but understand that Mom doesn’t trust Dad with the kids. Or another where a garage door is open before the kids just enough to show Arquette’s character prostrate on the floor and her alcoholic second husband’s feet. The man’s voice is crystal clear, and we can only guess that Arquette’s character was the victim of abuse, even if the kids can’t perfectly translate this image for themselves. When the film shifts perspective to one of the parents, Linklater with only one or two exceptions late in the film includes one or both of the children in the scene. To wit—a shot from the mom’s POV is of her kids greeting her at the front door.

What is shown. What we’re left with is a series of short scenes that by themselves communicate very little but taken together document the growth (physical, philosophical, etc.) of a boy and the family around him.

While the film’s subject is ostensibly universal, I am very thankful that the film allowed Mason to develop and mature in his own particular and peculiar way. Again, Boyhood is a rather long film, even though it goes by quickly, and frankly, had Mason become an open book of a person you could See Yourself As or Identify With, the film would’ve been a let down. Certainly I share some of Mason’s thoughts about the NSA and Facebook, and as the film closed I recognized a college freshman’s smugness and righteousness, not much changed from a twenty-five year old’s. But my youth only barely paralleled Mason’s, and I’m glad Linklater allowed the audience to reflect on childhood and parenthood through the lens of one specific family rather than insisted that the audience think about those topics as if Mason’s family were some universal stand-in. Linklater focuses on idiosyncrasies, whatever overarching thematic flourishes you believe Boyhood conveys are actually your own as much as, if not more than, the film’s.

This strength of Boyhood‘s could’ve suffered if the film came across as a gimmick, but Linklater managed to avoid this in spite of the film’s premise. Surely he was aided in this by omitting several clichés, because the effect is to watch Mason develop gradually rather than in a manner punctuated by Big Moments. The film thankfully lacks title cards—Linklater uses thirty-second bumper music, including some funny inclusions thanks to time’s passage like Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun”—further emphasizing gradual (natural) change over the usual way Hollywood condenses adolescence, to the point where it’s often not entirely obvious if another year has passed, unless Mason’s hair is different. Linklater’s visual style has never been showy, and though Boyhood has some stunning shots of Big Bend at twilight, that’s about as close (not very) to Terrence Malick as Linklater’s ever liable to come. But crucially, Linklater’s setup never distracts from character development, which, with Linklater’s more talky movies, basically substitutes for plot. His scenes are extremely well-choreographed—Boyhood contains not a couple lengthy one-shot conversations, similar to his Before series—and have a smoothness that balances nicely with his dialogues and monologues.

It’s no surprise that Linklater is an actor’s director, and finally I’d point out that Boyhood encapsulates his capacities in that facet of filmmaking. He’s always shown a deftness for directing kids (School of Rock), and this latest effort permitted him to work in depth with two actors when they were both precocious youngsters and on-edge teenagers (to the point where his daughter rather regretted chaining a part of her childhood to her dad’s ambition, a feeling which was all too palpable when watching), which must’ve required some outstanding patience and curiosity. It’s no surprise, either, that Arquette manages to show desperation and determination without ever resorting to hysteria, despite what turn out to be poor choices in men. It might come as a surprise that Taylor and I were most captivated by Hawke, an actor I confess to have had little patience for on screen except when working for Linklater (most prominently in the Before series). Linklater manages to let Hawke’s characters ramble but simultaneously not take those ramblings too seriously, which affords Hawke a lightness and likability that is strongly appealing. Mason is on the receiving end of a few lectures from adult figures in his life, his dad not excepted, but Hawke’s character doesn’t hector so much as joke around, and he’s the only male figure who really takes the time to ask his kids what they’re up to, even if he doesn’t remember all the details.

Then again, remembering all the details and moments isn’t as imperative as you might imagine. Spend a little time watching somebody experience a part of life’s journey, and you might find an actual character rather than a Hollywood paper cutout. 


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