2014 • 165 minutes • IFC Productions
Late in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), watching her son, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), bemusedly packing, suddenly breaks down crying. Concerned (but not concerned enough to go embrace her), Mason coaxes an explanation out of her. Olivia bursts into an incandescent rage:
This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now? First I get married, have kids, end up with two ex-husbands, go back to school, get my degree, get my masters, send both my kids off to college. What’s next? My own fucking funeral?
Mason, in the half-careless way of teenage boys, manages to scoff-comfort her by pointing out that she’s jumping ahead by at least forty years, but this is almost as close as Boyhood ever gets to a thesis statement. The downright intimidating project (no contracts were ever signed, because contracts cannot last longer than seven years in the United States) not only captures a boy’s development into a man, but does so by actively declining to capture what our culture considers milestones in the lives of children and teenagers. We do not see Mason learn to ride a bike, or his first kiss, or even his first sexual experience. Rather, Linklater is more interested in capturing the often mundane and sometimes banal moments that you actually remember from your childhood, not designated milestones.
Those moments are not the same for Mason as they are for you and me, but they ring archetypically true. Mason finds a dead bird in the yard as a child. Mason attempts to flee a birds and bees discussion between his recovering deadbeat dad (Ethan Hawke) and his older sister. Mason shrugs his way through lectures and reprimands. Even the most narratively cohesive year of Mason’s childhood, in which his mother finally divorces her abusively alcoholic second husband, makes perfect sense through Linklater’s determinedly undetermined lens: it’s an emotionally traumatic episode that looms large in Mason’s emotional memory, complete with the loose ends of the second husband’s biological children.
Other than that episode, though, Boyhood spools out gently, letting us simply marvel at time passing by and how slowly and quickly things seem to change. (Because of this, watching Boyhood is a singularly temporally disorienting experience; it’s the closest you’ll ever get to putting fast forward on life.) Olivia meets, marries, and divorces her third husband with a refreshing lack of fanfare; Samantha, Mason’s older sister, suddenly knows how to drive; and, most fascinatingly, Mason grows up before our eyes. Coltrane grows from a cherubic, serious little boy to a tall, knife-elbowed, and equally serious young man in fits and starts. His voice deepens, he shoots up like a weed, and grows a wispy, downy beard. He begins philosophizing, develops an interest in photography, and gets his heart broken.
In short, he becomes a person. At the end of the film, Mason asks his father what the point of everything is. His father, now happily remarried and pretty square, just laughs and points out that everybody is just as confused as everybody else. Boyhood is, essentially, about that journey, from child negotiating personhood and agency to adult unsure what to do with them once they’re achieved. And that makes its specifics (a lower-middle-class boy in Texas growing up during the aughts) universal. As nostalgic as it is to see Mason be read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and go to sleep in Dragon Ball Z sheets, it’s simply the accumulation of years that gives Boyhood its almost hypnotic power.
Boyhood is so naturalistic that it can be easy to forget the amazing work that Arquette and Hawke put into their performances—Arquette, especially, in the thankless role of mother. Watching her grow from a young, bewildered, single mother to a mature woman capable of having a positive impact on the world around her is almost as mesmerizing as Mason’s journey. In a cinematic landscape that often loses interest in actresses in their thirties and forties, watching Arquette age over the course of twelve years is a rare joy. Hawke goes through a similar transformation, from childish biological father to family man, but his presence is not as consistent as Arquette’s, which makes complete sense. Boyhood is confident enough to not show everything that happens, be it something Mason wouldn’t have witnessed, like his father meeting his new wife, or something that he did, like a brief period where he was assumed to be dyslexic.
It’s childhood as remembered constructed out of a childhood that actually occurred—which is what all childhoods ultimately become.
I saw this film in theaters.