Life moves too fast and we always find ourselves asking where the time went. The constant fleeting nature of our human existence, beginning from the time we were children, to the time we move into adulthood, feels like a blur to all of us. Director Richard Linklater understood this, as many of his experimental films like Slacker, Waking Life and his Before trilogy explore the ideas of memory, philosophy, destiny, consciousness and the nature of real-time.
Of course we saw such similar aging formulas before with The Up series, the children in Harry Potter, Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and François Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine Doinel. And yet with Boyhood, Linklater decides to take such aesthetics to a new experimental level, filming a nearly 3-hour epic while courageously shooting with the same recurring cast and crew for a few weeks every year for 12 years.
In many ways one can look at Boyhood as Linklater’s magnum opus and his final bookend to his continuous fascination with the passage of time and its correlation with compressed screen-time within cinema and real-time within life.
There was an immediate amount of buzz and publicity surrounding the production of the film, especially when much of the public discovered the unorthodox and groundbreaking aspect of the filmmaking. There was also an equal amount of uncertainty and concern because of the great risks and challenges involved in funding such an ambitious and unfamiliar production. What if Ellar Coltrane grew up to be a terrible actor? What if he or any of the supporting cast had succumbed to an unfortunate death or decided for whatever reason not to be a part of the film anymore?
Understandably the studios had a right to get concerned as there was an innumerable amount of things that could have easily gone wrong which would have led Linklater to scrap the entire project. Well, fortunately for us,the film turned out to be an exceptional success.
It’s not just the technical chronological achievements that Boyhood has to offer, because if that were the case the film could have turned out to be simply a forgetful gimmick. Linklater manages to craft a coming-of-age story seen through the perspective of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). We literally watch Mason grow up before our very eyes as the story spans through 12 years of his life between the ages of 6 to 18.
The story essentially becomes a nostalgic time capsule, presenting itself in a documentary-like way, which can be compared to reminiscing through old photo albums, except these photos are moving on the screen. The film opens with Mason as he is lying on his back on the grass outside his school, all to the tune of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in a tiny cramped home, while struggling to make ends meet.
Throughout the next several years we witness Olivia in search of love which leads to problems that I won’t get into. Eventually, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) returns from his job in Alaska and does his best to be a constant presence in his children’s lives.
Boyhood essentially transitions into a chronological timeline of various snapshots that follow Mason Jr’s journey as we witness his tribulations with puberty, romance and heartbreak, while also sharing moments like birthday and graduation celebrations, weekend trips in the country with his father and his experimentation with pot and alcohol. It feels like real life.
These simplistic, touching and poignant moments become transcendent for us while the spanning years become almost seamless. There are no clear-cut indications to inform us the passing of time or what year we are currently in.
Instead, Linklater presents a series of subtle hints whether it’s the changes in Mason’s height or hair style, the deepening of his voice, the use of a popular song on the soundtrack, politics the war in Iraq or the evolving changes in technology and video games.
The film’s title and choice of the lead protagonist has been criticized for unthinkingly being sexist and suggesting that it is a clearly a man’s world. But when looking closer, the film is just as much about Olivia’s spiritual growth and self-discovery as it is Mason’s. We witness Olivia going through hardships in her relationships and her life as a mother doing her best to raise two children while going to school. Because of the powerful performance by Patricia Arquette, Olivia’s journey slowly takes her from a financially struggling and desperate mother to a strong, independent, educated woman. Is that really sexist? I don’t think so. Arquette is undoubtedly the heart of the entire picture and she undeniably deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance.
Many moviegoers who come away from Boyhood expecting melodrama, thrilling revelations or an ending which conveniently ties up all loose ends, may be severely disappointed.
The film is meant to capture the mundane, simplistic routine of everyday life and it is that familiar ordinariness which makes it one of the best films of the year. Many stories are left unfinished and Mason’s ending is no different. I always have found the small subtle moments within the movies those moments I cherish the most. Some of the most memorable stories in cinema have become instant classics purely because of their powerful simplicities presenting an authentic honesty and truth that most people can identify with.
The most powerful scene in the film occurs where Mason, now 18-years-old is about to leave for college and enter a new chapter of self-discovery. Olivia suddenly breaks down and cries, now feeling that she has nothing left since all her children are grown up and gone. “I knew this day would come. I just thought it would have been better,” she tells him.
This scene drives the point of Boyhood, which is a film that is essentially about the constant passage of time. When death comes knocking at our door, we realize it’s all over much too quickly.