“You don’t want the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.”
It’s hard for me to begin to describe Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Boyhood.” How are you supposed to describe something that’s so intensely personal, yet epic in scale at the same time? How are you supposed to describe something that fits your childhood almost to a tee?
The film, which played for three showings at the Culver Center last weekend, follows the life of a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from seven years old up until college, as well as his family around him. The film’s unique approach in filming the story, however, is what makes it stand out. If you don’t recognize it by now, you may know it as “that movie that took 11 years to film.” Linklater, along with Coltrane as Mason, Ethan Hawke as his father, Patricia Arquette as his mother and Lorelei Linklater as his older sister, began filming the project in summer of 2002, and shot bits of the film each year until finishing in October 2013.
Though the film spanned so many years, it is Linklater’s understated directorial touch and great, if subtle, editing that ties all of the film’s eras together in a cohesive and believable way. While everything about these people’s lives is changing constantly, it is a remarkable feat to have stayed so true in directorial style to one vision. Linklater’s shots often are still or slow-moving, and encompass both the small details of emotions in the actors’ faces while life and the rest of the scene is moving around them. They are the obvious focus of the film — but it does not mean life is still not going on around them.
The film, which clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, is also probably one of the best examples of pacing you can find in a movie. The film is essentially a bunch of vignettes, with some extra depth to tie them together. You piece the story together by what is implied. There are no indicators for when time shifts occur; you simply have to notice the difference, whether it’s Mason’s haircut, a song that’s playing, the kids putting Obama signs on lawns for their dad or other indicators. It mimics the way our own memories work at time, vaguely associating certain things with certain time periods, with it all sometimes blurring together.
But enough of my gushing at the wonderful technicalities of the film. While the film indeed astounds in its technicalities, the film is at its best when you look at its intangibles as a whole — namely, its heart.
It’s that special thing that’s hard to find in just any movie. A lot of this can be attributed to its script, which was modified as the years passed to fit into some things really happening in the actor’s lives, as well as featuring the actors’ input on the writing (similar to the technique Linklater used in writing his “Before” trilogy, also starring Hawke). The intangibles come when the script, the actors and the cinematography come together to elevate to something greater than themselves.
The film’s way of passing time is astounding in its own right, but it’s even more astounding in making us realize how real it is to us. Years slip by and suddenly you don’t even realize how much someone has aged. You don’t realize how your interests slowly change. You don’t realize that it’s been 10 years since that part of your life. You don’t realize it’s been 10 years since you’ve seen someone you once considered a dear friend. Or that you’ve forgotten about that one memorable moment you had, and how it meant so much to you then. And how it’s just a footnote to you now.
This is where “Boyhood” is an absolute triumph. The movie lives in the spaces you’ve forgotten but once loved, and though it’s called “Boyhood,” and Mason is its titular character, it may as well be called “Motherhood,” or “Fatherhood,” or “Girlhood,” or any number of other titles too. The film captures the essence of confusion, joy, melancholia and everything in between that comes in different stages in life. Every scene is something that might actually happen, rather than the high drama of most films; this is the drama of your day-to-day life. And while this may possibly sound like a boring premise, it’s what made you who you are; it’s what shaped your character. To you, at that place in time it was not just important; it was the most important. And looking back at how you grew and came out of places can make even the most hard-hearted cynic a little nostalgic.
Personally, I could relate to so many of Mason’s experiences that the movie gave me more of a realistic look back to my childhood than anything I’ve ever seen. Everything from the Harry Potter book releases to the baseball games, to the moving out for the first time, to the random hikes into the mountains to try random things left me feeling like it was a movie made specifically for me, or people in my generation.
Beyond the specifics though, “Boyhood’s” breathing of life into the little moments you loved but had forgotten, to the people who you used to hold dear, to the moments of introspection that you think will never end is where the film ascends to classic status. Near the end of the movie, there’s a line where Mason’s mother, in a devastating performance by Arquette, says as Mason is about to leave for college, “I thought my life would be more than a series of milestones … I thought there’d be more.”
Apparently, nobody ever really “figures it out.” But it’s whatever your personal journey to find meaning is, and helping others on theirs along the way, that makes life worth living.