These days, movies are for the most part very, very derivative. Even the really good films from the last few years have usually had some sort of precedent, or are in some way an homage to some well-established style or subgenre. This is not a terribly profound insight by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it helps to put in perspective why Boyhood is such a special little film. I use the word “little” because despite being an ambitious 12-year year production, in which director Richard Linklater would shoot more scenes with his cast with each passing year, it is nonetheless a small-scale story. And yet, because Linklater decides to focus on the smaller details of growing up while combining it with this experimental approach, he’s ended up with something that feels entirely unique and singular. And yes, I’ll admit that I probably couldn’t have come up with a dumber title for a review of such an undeniably great movie.
As I said, director Richard Linklater decided to shoot this film over the course of 12 years, which thus gave him the ability to capture the formative years of actor Ellar Coltrane and his character Mason. Of course, this doesn’t really explain what Boyhood is about, and that’s not an easy question to answer, since it’s kind of like asking “what is childhood about?” But on a surface level, the movie is about Mason’s travails from ages 5 to 18, as we see the way different events and different people come and go while shaping Mason into the person he eventually becomes. Unsurprisingly, the boy’s mother (played by Patricia Arquette) and dad (Ethan Hawke) play the most prominent role of any of the adults in Mason’s life, while Mason’s sister (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) spends a lot of time hanging out with Mason early on in life, and then kind of drifts away as the years go by, as is the case with most siblings.
Perhaps this is as good a time as any for me to explain why I said earlier that Boyhood feels like a film without precident. Well, the best example I can give happens early on when we see Ethan Hawke explaining to his young son why the Iraq War is bullshit and George W. Bush sucks. Watching this scene, I had the reaction of thinking “Oh, yeah. I guess that’s a timely reference.” And then I instantly realized, “Holy shit! I’m not watching a period piece. They filmed that scene in the exact time period it’s taking place.” Which is something I kept having to remind myself of, as we see many references to things that were going on in the culture at the time the movie was being filmed, despite the fact that the film doesn’t have the luxury of hindsight. So instead of ever feeling nostalgic, the movie is simply able to just exist within it’s own time period, and in turn gives the story this whole other layer of reality.
Then there’s also the obvious fact that we get to see each character grow older as the actors also grow older with them. Having known about Boyhood‘s production for a while, I was a little surprised at how the film progresses in a very non-pandering way, without a single “one year later” thrown in to let us know how much time has passed. Instead we’re sort of forced to recognize what year it is with each childhood or cultural milestone that greets Mason, as well as how much his appearance has changed. And having been a fairly young person during the time period Boyhood takes place, it was hard for me not to constantly compare Mason’s childhood against my own, since I did live through a lot of these years with the same sense of youthful naiveté and helplessness.
Still, despite all these organic elements, Boyhood is a work of fiction, and I think it’s completely valid to question whether it works on a dramatic level, though I’d say it completely does. It’s hard to tell exactly how much of the story Linklater had mapped out in advance, but I’d probably guess about half of it. There are definitely some storylines where it seems like there was a natural arc in mind, while other parts of the story seem like they would’ve been dependent on how the actors matured, as well as what would’ve been going on in the country (and the film’s Texas setting) at the time. Also, because Boyhood seemingly aims to capture so many different aspects of childhood, I really responded to the way the film would quickly change tones from light and funny to raw and painful within an instant. Because sure, being a kid can be a fun and uninhibited time in one’s life, but even the best parents in the world can’t keep the proverbial monsters away forever.
The following is probably going to sound a bit pretentious, but it feels like a nice coincidence that I just started reading Anna Karenina (only 700 pages to go!), since the back cover of my copy of Tolstoy’s supposed masterpiece (again, I still got 700 pages to go) has a quote that I think could easily be applied to Boyhood. The poet Matthew Arnold claimed that Tolstoy’s novel was not so much a work of art as “a piece of life”, and despite being a work of complete fiction, that’s how I’m starting to look at this movie. Because it doesn’t entirely feel like a narrative film to me, though it’s definitely not a documentary by any means, so it instead exists in this untapped nether region between fact and fiction that I’ve never seen before in a film. And if that isn’t the kind of shit we go to the movies for, I don’t know what is.