Very few people will argue that Boyhood is a bad movie. The fact that no one is arguing that the “filmed with the same cast over 12 years” thing is a gimmick speaks to that. That’s because Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight, A Scanner Darkly, School of Rock), the writer and director, has an eye for detail and humanity in both of those jobs. I do have to admit that I had some issues with Boyhood while watching it, but during the drive home, those were washed away, and now I want to discuss exactly how Boyhood succeeds, and what its legacy might be.
My main concern was that this movie will become an artifact, rather than a canonical entry into the history of cinema. To make clear the distinction between those things, consider these two sets of movies:
- A: The Breakfast Club, The Best Years of Our Lives, Do the Right Thing
- B: Easy Rider, American Beauty, Batman
Ideally, the distinction between these lists is clear, but if not, let me link to Will Standish’s review of Batman. Both Set A and Set B contain movies that in many ways captured the spirit of a generation, or at least a group of people at a particular moment in time. Set A, though—and you might disagree with some of the individual items, but stick with me—is full of movies that remain classics today because they continue to speak to people while still representing their respective time periods and groups of people. Set B, on the other hand—and again, stick with the gist of what I’m saying even if you disagree about individual movies—consists of movies that are still classics, but more so because they reflect a moment in time. They just aren’t relatable anymore. They don’t carry the same empathy and perceptiveness that speaks to people in general, rather than just the people of that time period.
While I was watching Boyhood, I became sharply concerned that it would end up in Set B. Namely, this is because of the mass quantity of pop culture references. A kid sings “Oops!… I Did It Again” by Britney Spears; some youngins go to a midnight release for the book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; a dad and his children go door to door in Texas asking if they can put Obama/Biden signs in people’s yards; a father and son discuss whether there will be more Star Wars movies after the prequel trilogy; someone mentions Bright Eyes; for Christ’s sake, the movie opens with “Yellow” by Coldplay as a kid sits in the grass. Boyhood is so of its time that it will surely be watched by generations to get a feel for growing up as a lower-middle to upper-middle class (possibly white in particular) kid in America from 2000 to this moment.
The main character whom we follow throughout this journey, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), will speak to a lot of people who experienced their formative years over that time period. It’s almost uncanny how emotionally accurate the writing is, at least to someone like me who grew up in that time and was a similarly overdramatic, sensitive white boy growing up as a middle class American. I felt like my thoughts over the course of my life were being captured so well—the angst, the concerns about aspects of this time period—that I wanted the movie to continue ten years into the future so that I could see how I would confront those anxieties and what new ones would form.
Maybe I’m mistaken to find this a quality of this time period and not general, but I think that so many of us growing up right now feel like life is a series of relatively short-term goals; we’ll go to middle school, then high school, and maybe college for four years, and then get a job, and then maybe get married, and then maybe have kids, and watch them grow up and go to middle school, then high school, etc. etc. Our continuous timeline is seen as a series of events connected by the inbetween, and it creates this internal worry about what will happen when the next event is uncertain, or when the ones we have planned are over. What are we doing with our lives?
Boyhood captures that sensibility both in the main character (and all the others) and in its writing/direction/editing. Those events just seem to happen, often off-camera, and it adds to the directionless nature of these characters’ lives. Even they can’t seem to realize the beauty of the moments they spend in waiting; for example, SPOILER (not huge) Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), breaks down crying before Mason leaves for college, thinking that everything major is over now, and that the next event for her is her own funeral. Mason notes that she’s missing about forty years in between, but she can’t comprehend that. END SPOILER These characters are just so caught up in goal-orientation and moments that they can’t handle the idea of uncertain continuity.
But I think that the timely nature of these concerns (there are many more, but that one stuck out to me) will not date because they are so empathetically explored, so carefully considered that—even if these worries evaporate as new ones precipitate in the future—the ability to understand them will not. Linklater gives us too many gateways into the minds of the characters for Boyhood to become overly dated. Moreover, there are so many characters of different walks of life that the sheer diversity of adversity in this movie will allow people to reflect on what it meant to be a child, teenager, adult, or whatever at this time. One particularly striking example is one of Olivia’s partners, who begins as a young, idealistic army guy who went on some tours and felt pride in the trust he built with local communities overseas. Over some years, he starts drinking and has to take a job as a corrections officer to make ends meet, and he’s become bitter. His ideals have been overturned for practicality, and now he’s lost.
And that’s a character who hardly gets more than three small talking scenes. I mean, I could write three more articles about the nuances of Olivia herself—not to mention the father, Mason Sr., played brilliantly by Ethan Hawke—over the film, which is only noticeable vicariously (as one might expect in a movie that takes the perspective of a child). When I was watching Boyhood, I think I was comparing it unfavorably (and unfairly) to Dazed and Confused, which is definitely of its time (both the 70s and the 90s) but also widely approachable because of its empathy. But Boyhood has that, too, even if it has more pop culture stuff, and I really think that it will not only connect with those of this time, but also those of the future.
Even if I didn’t realize all of the things discussed above, I think the moment that I realized Boyhood‘s brilliance was when it was over. I only had a few moments where I had some really strong emotional pulls during the movie, but after I left and began to discuss it with my girlfriend, I realized I was tearing up. I didn’t even comprehend how emotionally resonant it all was, how easy it was to see myself in Mason. Hell, one conversation between Mason and his father could have been quoted from one between my father and I. I had to think and talk about it to realize how beautiful it is. That necessity alone might be enough to ensure Boyhood has a legacy that it deserves.
I feel like I’m dangerously close to making this review about myself rather than the movie, but that’s what Boyhood does. It drags you into its massive story and asks you to both consider the lives of the characters and reconsider your own. I find it overwhelming to see my anxieties captured so accurately, but I also find it liberating; like any good story, Boyhood doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but it does have a lot of great questions, and the note that the movie ends on—one that is not conclusive, but almost the opposite while maintaining resolution—makes me think that maybe it’s okay to be of this time, to share a mindset with so many people that I grew up with, because while my boyhood was not completely unique, it’s mine, and that alone is worthwhile.