Growing Up With Richard Linklater’s Inspiring “Boyhood”
Marketed as a film “12 years in the making”, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood follows the character of Mason Evans, Jr. from the ages of six to 18. His parents are divorced, and his mother moves them around more often than anyone would like. A lot can change in 12 years. Normally, directors would do the practical thing and cast different actors to play the same character at different stages. (Tree of Life, for instance, did this, but it is one of many.) In true Linklater fashion, Boyhood takes the unorthodox approach: the troupe of actors, centered upon lead Ellar Coltrane, met a few weeks each year from 2002 to 2014 to film. There are no cues or lower thirds telling us how much time passes between scenes. All you can do is pay attention to haircuts, settings, and technology as they change.
Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei plays Mason’s sister, Sam, and Linklater’s favorite actor to work with, Ethan Hawke, plays Mason, Sr., a father who shirks his responsibilities more often than assumes them. Rounding out the main cast is Patricia Arquette as Mason’s struggling single mother whose capacity to make it all work is downright impressive.
I’m finding it hard to start what will undoubtedly be one of my longest reviews ever. I’m a huge fan of Linklater’s work; his Before trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight follow two star-crossed lovers played by actors that also age in real time. Jesse and Celine meet on a Vienna-bound train in Europe in their mid-twenties, then reunite 9 years later in Paris, before rejoining us while on a Grecian vacation yet another 9 years later. Full disclosure: I adore the Before films. Linklater has long employed unique structures in his narratives and he is consumed with analyzing the various stages of life. He always hones in on the people and how they relate to one another, particularly through conversation; he’s fascinated by relationships and showcases that in his art form. His work usually has this surreal feeling of reality (that will only make sense if you see one of his movies). It’s all so sublime and idyllic, how earnest and communicative the people are. The characters are always so overwhelmingly REAL and self-aware, like you’re catching real life but only at its richest moments. To over abstract it: it’s like he’s riding the cusp of epiphany on a wave of life where his camera is the surfboard.
Actually, that makes no sense whatsoever. Ignore that.
Boyhood strikes a slightly different tone than something like the Before movies or even Linklater’s meandering Slacker; rather than hone in on specific days or nights of gargantuan emotional impact, Linklater gradually drifts his way through Mason’s boyhood. Sure, condensing 12 years into 2 hours and 44 minutes is no easy feat, but the story weaves a tapestry that includes both milestones and the more innocuous moments more typical of growing up.
Let’s look at the film in three acts: there’s the relatively hollow and joyous childhood, the fits and starts of severe feelings in adolescence, and then the frustration culminating in epiphany as Mason reaches young adulthood.
Half of the screen time in the first act is spent on establishing the framework for Mason’s life: his father is largely absent, drifting back into the frame every couple years. Over time even Mason, Sr. matures and graduates to every other weekend. Meanwhile, Mason’s mother Olivia struggles with a string of “drunken jerks” that oppress her while she tries to finish school and become the psychology professor she’s always dreamed of becoming. Olivia is the unsung hero of the movie, who achieves much through sheer willpower. Mason, Sr. is the cool dad who spoils his kids when he has the time or money, but Olivia is the single parent ultimately left to raise their children. Despite abusive relationships and dangling over the cusp of poverty, she makes it work. The sister, Sam, is a total brat while young, but eventually grows into a nice enough young lady.
The other half of the opening act is dedicated to what I guess you have to call “congruity”. I spent a solid 20 minutes on Google trying to figure out the opposite of an anachronism (when something specific to a time or place appears out of context in the wrong time or place — recent viral example being a water bottle found at Downton Abbey) to no avail. “Congruity” was the best I could find, which somehow doesn’t feel good enough. There are a great number of iconic songs, events, and even video games sparsely tossed into Boyhood as a sort of time stamp for the viewer. Mason’s little sister sings a Britney Spears song. Mason demolishes his step brother at Halo 2. He also plays Wii Boxing with a friend. The kids all go to the midnight release party for the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince book. Mason, Sr. talks about the Iraq war and eventually recruits the kids to help distribute Obama campaign lawn posters. Perhaps the most poignant and ironic occurs while on a camping trip where Mason and his dad talk about how they’ll never make a new Star Wars movie because Return of the Jedi finished the series so well. Joke’s on you Mason! The scene was no doubt filmed in something like 2007, so it’s funny to feel the greater relevance today when J. J. Abrams is corralling a grumpy, one-footed Han Solo on a brand new journey.
In these ways, Boyhood becomes a film written for kids who grew up with Mason. It resonates so well because those of us in that general age range can relate to him. Heck, I kind of came close to shedding a tear during the brief Harry Potter midnight release party scene. (Mason’s hair becomes a symbol of time progression at some point, in much the same way that Harry’s haircut shifts drastically between some of the middle movies, so it’s kind of funny that Rowling’s series gets a nod here). There are also lot of poignant universal messages about growing up that Boyhood communicates effectively, but all of these details kind of date the movie. Viewers ten years from now won’t really relate to everything as well. They won’t remember flip phones or Britney Spears. These details will just serve another excuse not to care about what you’re seeing. On the other hand, that’s part of Linklater’s enduring charm. He never caters or panders to his audience. He’s telling the stories he wants to tell, no matter how naive or hopeful or obnoxiously romantic they might be. He never apologizes for it. His audience is himself. We are just along for the ride.
I understand the point of all these details and the “Congruity”, but it ultimately makes the first act feel like something of a let down. I just wasn’t that into it, and I worried that the rest of the movie would sort of unravel into some generic coming of age story with a slightly edgy kid trying to find his way in the world.
I’m glad to say, however, that Boyhood rebounded in the best way possible, and proved to be a wonderful film well worth your time.
I’ve thought for a long time now that there are plenty of things I’ve done and books I’ve read that don’t really “count” from my childhood, mostly just because I wasn’t a fully conscious human being with a more evolved mind yet. I was force-fed books like To Kill a Mockingbird and I’ve been to California, but you can’t fully comprehend certain experiences until you’re older. It’s the same for Mason. There’s a few scenes in Mason’s middle years where his eyes begin to open. He starts to really see and feel the world around him in new ways. It isn’t until then that Mason pays attention to the details of his life and think about the greater meaning. He begins to notice the toxic relationships his mother gravitates towards. He experiments in drinking and drugs, consuming without ever being consumed by them. The transition into act two is subtle, but it’s that gradual paradigm shift from showcasing a happy childhood to bringing you inside a young teenager’s mind that really makes the film compelling. You see the world through his eyes, and come to find out, it is really really really hard to find your place in that world.
For the most part, young-adult Mason is a likable, albeit distant and distracted guy. He respects women because his mother is such a strong person, but he’s also picked up how to charm them from his father. There’s a funny little encounter Mason has with a waitress at his restaurant job. They’re obviously flirting without expecting anything to come of it; it’s harmless and casual. Their exchange devolves into crude, foul wise-cracks in the way you really only hear if you’ve worked in a restaurant. Subtle details like this are shoved into Boyhood kind of randomly, but it makes Mason’s world feel that much more real. There’s something here for everyone.
Many of the characters we encounter throughout Boyhood are fully rounded with complex psychologies. His mother is a person of dignity, who will fight for the safety and well-being of her children. She has her secrets and her frustrations, but she’s always doing the best she can. As Mason progresses through his teenage years, he begins encountering a string of simplified, stereotyped figures of authority, most often male. There’s an awkward and proud restaurant manager Mason works for. There’s his smart-ass high school photography teacher. Even a couple of Mason’s step dads are simple, typical, and something out of a lifetime movie. These figures of authority feel more like caricatures thrown in with the express purpose of serving a role in Mason’s development (or maybe we should just call that plot progression). They ask the profound and provocative questions: “Who are you going to be, Mason?” They try to impress upon him a sense of responsibility: “I’ve got you pegged for fry cook next summer!” Many of these encounters are tangential at best and oddly enough, utterly realistic. They work. Stereotypes come from somewhere for a reason, ya know.
You see, we all have those random encounters with people we aren’t necessarily close with at all, but that wind up being a big influence on you. (I talked about my friend Bob in an article awhile back about binge watching). Small conversations with random people in your life can sometimes function like that proverbial pebble tossed into the lake. Think of those far-reaching ripples and waves. In Boyhood, these supporting characters work in a way that almost shouldn’t, because they are too simple. Even though we are all obviously people, oftentimes other human beings factor into our lives as mere characters in our story. After all, how many people in your life do you really know? Many of the people that drift in and out serve some minor role. You live your life without them for far longer than they remain in most cases. In some fashion, aren’t we all just characters in somebody else’s story?
Mason’s relationship with high-school girlfriend Sheena is a peculiar one. Mason grows into a dark, mildly brooding man of mystery that’s into photography. He’s edgy. He’s got an earring. He has bad facial hair. He has all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and profound, abstract thoughts about the world. Nobody wants to listen to him. Until Sheena. She’s a gorgeous blonde with a dazzling smile. She’s sweet towards him and is a bit enchanted by Mason’s demeanor. You can tell she’s flattered that of all people, Mason chose her to confide in. This dynamic, unfortunately, characterizes and eventually dooms their relationship, but it makes for an intriguing love story that you don’t see very often. Even more importantly, their relationship is part of the story, without ever becoming the focus. You see, the Sheeson (Maena?) relationship isn’t really one of mutual interest or similarities; it is one of contrast. For a time, those differences mean that they balance each other out. Over time, those differences become too much to sustain a relationship.
Differences. Contrast. Balance. That’s where we touch upon the film’s biggest theme: Harmony.
Linklater is a man preoccupied by relationship dynamics, and he showcases that through brilliantly scripted dialogue. His characters think and feel and communicate with enchanting efficiency. Because the people are so self-possessed and clearly defined, the world of Boyhood becomes one of numerous dichotomies. In many cases, this is how Mason perceives the world, but it’s more in the script where we see a lot of stark differences. Mason’s mother is the rigid, structured, organized and responsible parent. Mason’s father is the fun, communicative, charming, artistically expressive, and casual dad. Quite literally, the mother is a psychologist and the father is a musician. The mother teachers a science of clinical principles. The father sings songs of regret and laments his own inadequacies. Perhaps the marriage didn’t work because they are so obviously left brain vs. right brain? This and the myriad of other revolving relationships we see both around and involving Mason hone in on those fundamental differences between people. You’d think it might be exhausting or bleak, or both — drawing all these lines in the sand — but it’s not. Harmony provides us with the richest, most beautiful music, and you can’t harmonize without difference voices.
There’s a brilliant scene scripted somewhere in the late-middle of the movie, one that effectively showcases the whole “point” we are meant to take home from Boyhood. It ushers us into act three on the day of Mason’s 15th birthday. It’s not Linklater holding the audience’s hand and pointing to “THE POINT” either (in the insulting way that Woody Allen is so fond of). The theme is cleverly disguised behind a rant Mason, Sr. goes on about The Beatles. You see, the main conflict of the film develops as a maturing Mason, Jr. struggles to find his place in the world and effectively relate to people. You know, like every teenager ever in the history of the world. For Mason’s birthday, his father gives him what he calls The Beatles’s “Black Album”, a mix tape assembling the best songs that each of the individual members did after the band broke up. Mason loves only Lennon, because he’s all love and pain and artistic abstraction and the tortured artist mumbo jumbo. That’s so Mason.
Ethan Hawke, however, delivers this beautiful monologue about how The Beatles were the greatest rock band of all time because they had all of these really strong, specific personality types that worked together to develop a harmonic relationship. The blend of all their differences and all their sounds made them a success, and by reassembling that dynamic in this “Black Album”, you can hear that perfection again. It’s a fantastic scene, worth the price of admission alone, and it’s a concept that both viewer and Mason digest for the rest of the movie from that point on. It’s even on your mind in the final scene of the movie, when everything sort of slides into focus for both Mason and viewer.
I reckon I’ve delivered on my promise of writing an incredibly long-winded review, and if you’ve made it this far you’re probably ready for me to finish. I won’t spoil anything more for you other than to say that Boyhood is a long journey that expertly celebrates individualism. You don’t celebrate life by gravitating towards like-minded individuals and isolating yourself in comfort. You grow and contribute by adding your voice to others. Celebrate your differences and you celebrate humanity. Human beings were meant to complement one another, not conform to one another. So go out there and figure out how to be yourself, but be sure to see Boyhood first. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about The Beatles and about yourself.