Boyhood is a groundbreaking film. It has taken director Richard Linklater twelve years to shoot, most uniquely, with the same cast. The actors had to commit to many annual shootings over this twelve-year period. This is not a documentary. Written by Linklater himself, the film follows a linear narrative storyline of a boy named Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who is very patient indeed; he had to wait twelve years to have his work put on screen.
We first see Mason in 2001 when he is just six years old starting grade one and 165 minutes later, we see him at eighteen, entering college. He literally grows up in front of our eyes. You may shrug with a casual, ‘Ok… so what?’
Here are the implications of what this all means in the hands of a director with the gift of depicting perceptively the essence of human relationships, most notably, from his trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013). The passage of time is prominent in his trilogy with the films screened nine years apart. In there, we follow the chance meeting of actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on a train to their married life eighteen years later. While time is also of the essence here (just a pun, no hurry), Boyhood has a distinct difference.
Like time-lapse photography of a seedling to fruition we used to watch in biology class, Boyhood captures the life of Mason in one seamless unity. The editing is fluid and smooth. We see the passage of time from the games he play (from Game Boy to Xbox to Wii), the social and political changes, the ephemeral shifting of pop-culture, especially music (from Coldplay to Arcade Fire and those in between), and the evolving of technology. Most important of all, we see the human factor tossed and carried along in the current of time.
Linklater leads us to see Mason in the context of his family life, or whatever that defines it. What I see is not a happy boyhood. At the beginning of the film, Mason and his two-year-older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) have to leave their friends and move from small town Texas to Houston, where their determined single-parent mom (Patricia Arquette) can attend college to improve her job prospect. During this time, their divorced and absent dad (Ethan Hawke) suddenly reappears back into their lives.
Dad brings joy to the children. He is full of life and cares about them, at least while it is his turn to take them out. This may be ordinary in America nowadays, divorced parenthood, but I see the yearning in the hearts of the children on screen for a happy, reconciled family. There is deeper pain than just the loneliness we see on the surface of Mason and Samantha.
The brilliance of the director is in the captivating telling of what seems to be an ordinary, typical childhood. In a realistic style as if allowing me the viewer to be an invisible observer, Linklater makes me care for every member of this family.
But the character I find most admirable is mom Olivia. She does her best to improve her lot for the sake of her children. Her decisions may not be welcomed by them, and she makes mistakes, but she sticks to her guns with what she thinks is right and presses on. Ultimately she reaches her goal in getting a college teaching post. Arquette’s performance is understated and affective. My prediction is a possible acting nomination(s) for her come Awards Season.
We soon see Olivia remarry, this time to her psychology professor Bill (Marco Perella). It turns out to be a mistake. Bill later reveals himself to be a controlling alcoholic, abusive to his wife and kids. While Mason and Samantha gain a pair of step brother and sister of their own age, they now live under the roof of a harsh disciplinarian stepfather.
A poignant scene which I will not easily forget is after an abusive episode, Olivia disappears. Unable to find his wife, a fuming Bill has all four children sit on the sofa for interrogation, and have each of them hand him his/her cell phone. He checks the messages and usage history to see if any of them has communicated with their mother.
Mason has questioned his mom, “Why do you marry him? He’s a jerk.” Olivia answers, “So you can have a family.” Without missing a beat, he says, “we already have one.” Linklater has me at the edge of the seat, amazing with a film like this, to see how mom Olivia gets herself and her own kids out of such a dire situation under Bill’s roof.
In contrast, it is a joy to see the children with their birth father. And most importably, we see the bond of genuine love between the parents and their children despite the divorce. It is gratifying to see that, through the years, the adults grow up as well.
As time passes, we see Mason emerges to be an artistic youth, with a passion for photography. And yet, like his dad, he disregards rules and structures. We see him continue to seek out what it is that makes life meaningful. And yet, the adults in his life seem to be as confused as he is. Mason sees them make bad choices, struggles with his own, and questions ‘so what’s the point?’ Olivia too, after all that life hands her, and ultimately seeing her kids graduate from high school and herself achieving respectability with her college teaching career, utters “I just thought there will be more.”
Eventually, we see Mason at eighteen. The film ends with his first day of settling in a college dorm. He quickly makes friend with his roommate and his girlfriend and her roommate. They skip the orientation and go hiking. On the mountainous path, they sit down and talk, young people facing a brand new chapter in their lives. Like the vast mountain ranges, their future lays out in front of them, appealing and yet full of challenges and mystery. We see too that Mason has found a new soulmate as the girl shares with him, “You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”
As the film fades to black, I breathe out a sigh of relief. At least, there’s no irreparable disaster. No matter what has happened in the past twelve years, the present is most livable, and the future is hopeful.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
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