“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activites in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
In most Hollywood movies, memories of childhood are played in flashback. Younger actors are chosen to play older ones. History is viewed in hindsight, with writers and directors paying careful attention to what lasted, what people still talk about. But Richard Linklater chose to do the opposite. He filmed a story beginning at boyhood and filming the big changes in real time, over the course of a twelve-year period. You’ve heard all of this, of course, if you’ve been listening to interviews and reading reviews. You’ve heard everything — how great it is, how moving it is, and how ultimately life-affirming it is. This cannot be argued. It is unequivocal. This is a great film.
Boyhood is a story of a boy who comes of age before our eyes, played with spectacular depth by Ellar Coltrane. He struggles through bullies and the trauma of being a sensitive artist growing up in Texas where he’s expected to be a macho football player, at the very least. He is expected to be a “man.” The kind of man he will become is the best kind. But he won’t know that, and we can’t know that either, until he grows up and finds his way.
Despite the fact that Linklater had been filming this movie for 12 years it feels as fresh as if he’d filmed it in 12 months. He never loses command of this story, one he honed carefully over a decade. This was a deliberate telling of, well, life. You might be inclined to think it’s a stunt or some useless gimmick, like why would anyone bother with all of that trouble? But it ultimately makes such a profound imprint while watching it that it achieves what most art simply cannot — it gives you back what time has taken.
In the blink of an eye you raise a child. It feels like work at first because the car alarm is going off every five minutes — they’re crying, they’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re having a tantrum, vaccines, school clothes, lunch boxes, hurt feelings, failed tests, successes! Before you know it, your squishy helpless baby is all grown up. They pull away from hugs. They think for themselves. They fall in and out of love. Good things happen to them. Bad things happen to them. The most surprising part of it all is you realize how much you like them. You like them so much you might never want them to leave. You like them so much you want to do it all over again. All of it. All of the diaper changing and bad Halloween costumes, the cavities, the tangled hair — the lectures, the time outs. Suddenly it comes flooding back as all good memories. The thing you don’t expect is that you’ll look in the mirror when it is all over and see yourself, only much older. Much, much older.
At a time when Hollywood is body-slamming up against all that visual effects can do, Boyhood comes along and shows what kind of level of difficulty there is in simply capturing life in real time. It is more dazzling, more breathtaking than any visual effect you will see this year and that includes what’s opening against it at the box office, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which arguably shows the best visual effects ever put on screen. In the end, what Dawn seeks is the same as what Boyhood seeks — to give us realism through the imagination to do what art does best: project whole human truths.
Linklater, it must be said, depends heavily on his actors. He chooses the right people for the parts, one of his gifts as a filmmaker. Ethan Hawke is once again Linklater’s muse, doing his best work. Patricia Arquette surprises at every turn, never playing the saintly mother as is so often depicted in any Hollywood movie written by male-centric dumb people. She is someone who wants to be a whole person on her own, to educate herself, take care of her kids and do some good in the world. She is also the someone who does the hard work of parenting while the absent father gets to slip in and out, and be the “cool” parent. The mother is often stuck with the harder job, all of the things that make her children not like her as much. The fun dad gets all of the credit usually, while the unfun mother is the drag. That is, until kids become parents and then they realize. Linklater is too smart, and Arquette way too smart, to let that cliche live and breath in Boyhood. What we see here is a mother who is also a person, capable of making terrible mistakes but also of raising two really wonderful kids. Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei is plucky and vibrant as the cooler older sister, and most of the other supporting characters are also so refreshingly real. Linklater was determined to mostly cast unknowns, although sometimes a few familiar faces show up.
Linklater also infused Boyhood with a love of music, which threads itself throughout the film in various ways, from marking a time and place in history (from Coldplay to Lady Gaga), to aiding some of the characters through stages in their lives. This entire story takes place within the framework of 9/11 and the two Iraq wars. Though that plays in the background to provide context, it does mark this film in history — we are probably too close to it now to see what that will ultimately mean.
What is probably most surprising of all about Boyhood is that it doesn’t hinge on the more dramatic life events — cancer or car crashes, cutting, suicide or rape — domestic violence at the hands of terrible stepfathers is the most drama we see here. The majority of this three-hour film is filled with the things about life that break your heart the hardest: the magic, the delirious beauty in the every day.
Each of us will come at Boyhood from a different perspective. I came at it as both a mother and a child who came of age under a parade of asshole boyfriends of my hard working single mom. I came to it as a woman who did not always have the best choice of men but who decided at some point to just not parade those men into my daughter’s life after one particularly bad one. I came to it as a mom raising a child and watching her grow so fast I kept wanting to hit the pause button. Watching Ellar Coltrane grow in Boyhood I felt the same way. Each time something happened, nothing particularly dramatic, time would jump forward and they’d all be older. I wanted to pause it, to stop it, to make him stop growing before my eyes. It was too fast.
My daughter who is 16 now came at it from a decidedly girl’s perspective. She wanted the movie to be more about the daughter, like, why didn’t we know what she wanted to do with her life? Girls have so much more on their plate than boys growing up — body image, period, the male gaze, mean girls. But I had to try to tell her that it wasn’t that story. It was more about Linklater’s experience coming of age. We paused to reflect the sorry truth that when it’s a man’s story it’s universal but when it’s a woman’s story it is marginalized. It felt like a scene out of the movie. I was awash in pride at my daughter’s ability to think that way. I told her to revisit the film when she gets older, maybe after she figures out what she wants to do with her life.
At the end of Boyhood my heart stopped and the tears were pouring out of my eyes. I felt like the most embarrassing kind of mom because I wasn’t crying out of sadness — but out of pride. I was so proud to see this boy become such a formidable man. And to be sitting next to my own daughter, a person I admire so much. Despite having grown with me, a single mother broke for most of her early life, despite the bad boyfriends, she is such a smart and compassionate kid. It all feels so accidental. You stand back in awe: what did I even do?
In real life we might wonder, is that all there is to it? We grow up at the hands of everyone we brush up against. Our parents, our siblings, our friends, our stepparents, our teachers, our girlfriends and boyfriends, strangers, good people, bad people, wars and presidents, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. We are a mosaic of those imprints. They make their mark on us and eventually we emerge as who we are. Boyhood reminds us that much of life is figuring that out. It also reminds us that once we do figure that out we eventually uncover an even bigger truth: our lives are other people.
But you know, you can’t stop time. It’s one of two truths about this world. People die and time marches forward. But I guess you kind of feel like you can get a handle on it and that at some point you will not be carried forward by it but rather at the wheel of it, making it go where you want it to go. But this film, perhaps more than any other I’ve ever seen, shows you that you don’t and can’t control that part of time. All you can do is hope for the best and reach for what matters most in the wake of that truth.