Boyhood is an exercise in making masterful filmmaking look easy, so much so that after reading the unanimously gushing reviews you might expect a scope more Interstellar than the life of a white boy growing up throughout middle class America. Richard Linklater’s cinematic Bildungsroman is the antithesis of Interstellar in that it stays intimately tied to the terrestrial, to our earthly relationships.
The film is technically impressive in a more nuanced way than Birdman or Nolan’s space opera, but Linklater’s most striking feat is the ability to expound on human themes in a brief scene or a look between brother and sister with such effortlessness that even the most awarded director should take notes. He never dwells on any one argument or moment, even escaping the semblance of a three act plot. He instead moves at the speed of human life, sometimes meandering, sometimes abruptly jumping forward, but always in a manner that suggests intentionality. Boyhood ultimately leaves you with the sense in which we undulate through space and time to create the milestones that make our lives matter.
The film follows a boy named Mason from the age of six until college. The subject beyond the lens is a young boy, but the boy and the film are nothing without the people which ground and provide meaning to his life. This sense of reality is complimented by Linklater’s lack of script, opting instead for an outline that would give flexibility and allow actor Ellar Coltrane’s (Mason) real life experiences and conversations to be incorporated into the narrative. The whole plot only matters in so much that the sum is made special by the parts. What is life but a tapestry of scenes, the long lived memories, we use as reference to define ourselves? The film expertly draws out these paradoxically pretentious and poignant questions consistently, effectively positioning the proverbial mirror in front of us for self reflection. Sure you can turn away and not think about your own life in relation to Mason’s, but doing so would be missing the point.
Boyhood’s great “gimmick” is that it was filmed over 12 years with the main characters growing up in reality as well as diegetically.
We theorise we’re the longest scheduled production in film history,” says Linklater. Someone maybe shot some footage and 20 years later put it in, but this was an official, union production schedule of 4,000-plus days.
This time travel doesn’t go to waste, resulting in something greater than novelty. From Dragon Ball Z to early gen iPods to discovering the lingerie section of those giant JCPenney catalogs they used to distribute, Linklater has an astute eye for would come to define the time period. In this way, Boyhood could be said to be a period piece, albeit one for the present generations. The film makes the world of checkbooks and CDs and overhead projectors seem distant, yet close.
The director could have easily beat us over the head with the temporal transitions, but he lets the environment and the look of the actors do the talking. Instead of a “2005” timestamp at the bottom of the screen we might get a close up of that year’s iPod or a world event like the Iraq war on television. Linklater’s sensitivity to time also shows itself in the casting decisions, the actors fully executing on what is a technically difficult acting gig. Young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) could have lacked the talent or drive to follow through with the later half of the film, but this isn’t the case. In fact, every single actor on this cast comes through to the very end, showcasing impeccable foresight on Linklater’s part.
Sadly, I wonder if the technical mastery and the delicate filmmaking would be enough to capture a large audience used to the event movies like Interstellar. It would be easy to say it isn’t for them, but that simply isn’t true. I cannot name one film released in 2014 that spoke with such abundant value and truth to what it is to be a human being (It also has one of the most accurate depictions of being stoned in film I have ever seen). The film is anchored by an indescribable undertow of melancholy and joy. And if you let the film sweep you up for moment you can begin to feel your throat swell with heartbreak and gratitude for our time here. Boyhood is about the life of young middle class white boy, an experience that may be as wholly different from yours as it is from mine, but conjoined to this difference is a sameness that binds every single one of us. A life that is different but the same.