When Boyhood was making the rounds, garnering critical acclaim, there emerged a buzz that was principally impressed with Linklater’s process – filming a bildungsroman year-by-year for over a decade, keeping the cast intact. Sure, this feat is impressive; the sheer logistics is improbable. However, not only is Linklater’s remarkable process extra-textual and consequently should have no bearing on the film’s quality, but filming a continuous narrative for years on end, to the point that aging is apparent, does not alone make Boyhood an anomaly of visual storytelling. The obvious growth is not why the film is a moving portrait of adolescence. But, as in life, what happens in between the moments we notice accruing age does make Boyhood an unusually acute and multivalent portrayal of the modern American working-class family.
There are plenty of precedents for Linklater’s filmmaking process. Truffaut did something similar in his Antoine Doinel series, a set of five films that follow the titular character (played by Jean-Pierre Laud) as he goes from being a 12-year-old boy in 1959’s The 400 Blows and ends on 1979’s Love on the Run, when Laud was 35-years-old. Of course, we watched Daniel Radcliffe and company grow up over the eight Harry Potter films. Studying kids’ growth from childhood to adulthood is the central conceit of Michael Apted’s non-fictional UP series. And we’ve been watching people age for years on a variety of TV series. Recently, shows like Modern Family and Parenthood have examined aging (of both children and parents) within a similarly familial context for going on the better part of a decade. But as Matt Zoller Seitz states in his RogerEbert.com review, “we’ve never seen it happen in such a compact span of screen time” as we do in Boyhood. What makes that unique, more important than simply doing something first, is that the quick passing – though an almost three hour film, it is never either idle or running ahead – is a comment itself on life’s seemingly hasty passage of time. Boyhood is very interested in highlighting how quickly years of our lives can pass while we are waiting for bigger things to happen, and condensing twelve years into 160 minutes affords the viewers such a sensation.
It’s common in pop cultural narratives for a character’s benchmark achievements (events that define us on paper) to be represented in extravagant fashion, as if we experience life with a perfectly synced crescendo of music and emotion. Refreshingly, much of Boyhood’s allure derives from the simple verisimilitude of its observations, especially in ostensibly “large” life moments. During the titular boy's graduation, Mason’s reaction (or lack of) reminds us that these achievements we’ve been working towards for years can often be depressingly anticlimactic, especially a day…or even an hour removed from them. Whether it’s graduation, getting a job, or marriage, there is an expectation that things will become easier once we get there, but more often than not we are met with new obstacles, or even worse, left feeling unfulfilled.
In one of the film’s most tender scenes, Mason’s mom (played by Patricia Arquette) watches as her son leaves her an empty nester. Sobbing and frustrated, she exclaims she thought life was about getting married (thrice divorced), getting a career you like (a college instructor in seemingly constant employment), and having kids (two good ones). But alone, grading assignments I’m sure she’s sick of, and watching her youngest leave for college she can’t help but wonder, “is this it?” If following a template for a good life has left her alone and emotionally scarred, Mason must feel inadvertently advised to question the “directions for use” that have been passed on to his mother. This scene acts as Boyhood’s most generationally specific observation: after watching our parents frustrated with the fallacy of the nuclear family and the American Dream, the baton is being passed on to a generation that is rethinking the priorities placed upon us.
Though the aforementioned scene exemplifies Boyhood’s directness and timeliness, the film has obvious intergenerational appeal. While called “Boyhood,” because we are afforded Mason’s subjectivity, the film must be just as important to the parents of our generation as they were alongside us, witnessing and harvesting our growth, and all the naivety, cuteness, awkwardness, sadness, and stupidity that goes along with it. Through Mason’s mom and dad (the latter played by Ethan Hawke), we get a glimpse of a generation of parents that had to figure out how to mentor us on-the-fly because of the emotional hand they had been dealt via their progenitors. Much of the film’s sweetness springs from Mason’s mom and dad continually learning how to be better parents, trying to make up for and learn from any of their prior parental blunders. I especially love how his dad eventually starts to trust his own parental instincts no matter how awkward some of the resulting advice may be for Mason and his sister.
Like all teens, Mason goes through the awkward stage of social development when being a jackass seems inescapable. Though some viewers may dismiss the early teen segments of the film because of “bad acting” or “bad dialogue,” Linklater wisely embraces the uncomfortable life stage that most of us do not want to recall; I would most likely pay money to avoid hearing my 15-year-old self. Fortunately, the director gives agency to our teenhood because he realizes this awkward stage we wish to forget has actually influenced our self-actualization. There is also a certain unconventional sweetness in Mason (and therefore most of us) being socially lost and malleable, not knowing who or what ideas and attitudes to grasp onto as his own. (In this way, Boyhood reminds me of Larry Clark’s filmography; how it is lovingly endeared by such an awkward stage of adolescent life. However, I hesitate to make a serious connection between the two since Clark’s motivations can often verge on amoral.)
It may be easy to call Boyhood an epic because of its sprawling nature, but the aspects usually tied to the adjective don't define the film. Instead, it's an epic of the quietest sense. Some of Boyhood's simplest asides can be heartbreaking. Linklater does right to only include loud, outspoken moments when they are necessary, such as family fights that culminate with Mason’s drunken stepdad throwing dishes and verbally abusing the family. But even then, Boyhood’s sadness and the characters' trauma is not entirely contingent upon these tense situations. I would go so far as to say such scenes are treated as ancillary, obvious outcomes to more poignant antecedents. Consider the following scene: Mason and his stepbrother have to wait in the backseat outside a liquor store while his stepdad gets booze “in case company comes over.” Mason’s stepbrother nonchalantly relays to him that no one ever comes over. There is more melancholy in the unaffected casualness of this brotherly exchange, in the prevalence of their neglect and impending abuse than actually watching the subsequent drama. Boyhood is an epic that doesn’t revel in crescendos, but in a multitude of emotional tremors.
While Linklater’s film captures a particular epoch with a remarkably close ear to the ground (and contemporary pop music), it also transcends solely speaking to the aughts experience. Unlike a film like Spring Breakers, which speaks to a very specific era connected to a very specific attitude, Boyhood will most likely eclipse its synonymy with the aughts because of the universal nature of the familial aspects it meditates upon. This isn’t to necessarily say one type of film is better than the other, but to predict that Boyhood’s inclusive apprehension of the family will afford it a much longer shelf life in the popular memory.