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Written on 09/02/2014, film first viewed by author on 08/28/2014
Time is either the absolute worst enemy of the filmmaker, or the absolute best friend. The great Charlie Chaplin once said, “My only enemy is time.” It is not entirely clear what he meant, but perhaps he was referring to the rigorous schedule a filmmaker must keep to in order to produce a complete film in a timely manner. Typically and theoretically, a feature-length film may take approximately one whole year to get in front of an audience. This would account for three to four months of pre-production work, three to four months of principal photography, and another three to four months for post-production. It may seem straightforward enough, but then take into account the management of people and the x-factor of unlucky occurrences. It doesn’t take much to derail a production. However, the point at which time may be on the filmmaker’s side is after the film is complete. Some critics say that certain films “get better over time”, perhaps the message of a film was unpopular in a certain point in history, or its style was ahead of its contemporaries (to the dismay of filmmakers, that line of thinking doesn’t help them when they are alive and need the good publicity). In the case of Richard Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood, time was, and perhaps always will be, on its side.
Boyhood is a story that takes twelve years to tell. A film with such scope usually requires a skilled casting and production design department. Makeup artists are needed to age the adult actors. Prop makers, buyers, and decorators must construct and dress sets to accurately portray the era. The children characters must have a handful of different actors to play them as they age in the story, and these actors must convincingly look like they could age into each other. Here’s where Linklater does something special, where he turns the concept of time in film on its head. Instead of tricking an audience into believing time has passed in his narrative, he actually captures the time as it passes in “the real world”. The characters are all portrayed by the same actors as they age over the course of twelve years. While the adult characters turn slightly grey or fluctuate in body weight, the aging is significantly noticed in the children and their surroundings.
Boyhood is the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a boy into a young man. His parents (played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) are divorced and polar-opposite forces: one mature and responsible, the other carefree and fun-loving. The relationship he shares with his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), is typical with a friendship sometimes checkered with rivalry and humor. The audience watches as Mason is shaped by the events that occur throughout his childhood, some joyous, some turbulent. The time he spends with his friends, his sister, or his father often gives Mason a chance to play, explore, and bloom into another area of life, while episodes of abuse and tyranny (mostly through his mother’s poor choice in drunk, authority-hungry men) mold Mason’s opinion on who to trust in life and how to cope with cruel establishments and authoritarianism.
Not only is Boyhood a chronicle of human growth, it is also a time capsule of recent memory. Since the film was shot within actual time frames (never intended to look like the past or a future, but shot in the actual “present” as it was known), the audience will see things they remember, with props that could have been grabbed off of the shelf of a contemporary store, and references in pop-culture. Throughout the story, the children grow up through Dragon Ball Z , Brittany Spears, Harry Potter, and the graffiti (or “tagging”) culture, only to name a few. The soundtrack features songs that were hits at the time of their certain appearances in the narrative, an audio cue to the audience that further establishes the era. As the children get older, they are at times sucked into politics and global affairs. The war in Iraq and the 2008 Presidential Election spur debates amongst characters about the “rights” and “wrongs” of society. Finally, social media becomes an increasingly hot topic towards the end of the film. Conversations about why people should or shouldn’t be “plugged-in” promote an extremely relevant theme.
Boyhood is not simply a personal history of a fictional character. It is a generational history, a core sample taken from a very concentrated couple of decades in the very history of the United States. In a way, it is what a Charles Dickens novel was, historical fiction that accurately reflects a time that we all lived through. The author can say that he has actually lived through some of the moments found in Boyhood, but not in its most exaggerated of moments. As this is written, it is safe to say that this film speaks to three currently living generations, mostly young adults, their parents, and their grandparents, but only focuses on the point in those persons’ lives where the young adults were growing up. A huge theme found within the film is generational expectations. The parents, step-parents, teachers, and bosses of Mason and Samantha constantly try to drum into their heads what is expected of them as they near adulthood, but these expectations are solely based on what was expected of the last generation. As values, politics, technology and the economy drastically change in America, these expectations thrust upon the current generation become confusing, vague, and sometimes unrealistic. This can be visually seen as frustrating to Mason, who could be interpreted as an updated Holden Caulfield, disillusioned by a current “phoniness” he sees in the world. Mason begins to fear a universal threat, the threat of judgment, of how he is seen by others in a world where everyone can be seen and crucified through a mobile device.
Where Boyhood falters ever so slightly is towards the film’s conclusion, when Mason is a free-thinking young adult with a lot on his mind. There are scenes in which he is talking to his girlfriend, and the conversations are, indeed, deep and thought-provoking. However, they tend to drag on until they repeat their message. Where Mason is now expressing himself through a lot of talk, he has lost some of the charm of his “true cinema” childhood. In true cinema, there is only action, expression, and in some cases sound, without any use of dialogue. That is what makes the earlier scenes of Boyhood so entrancing.
Overall, however, Linklater’s masterpiece is stunning. The author dares to say it is the best film of 2014. Through twelve years of off-and-on shooting to capture the very essence of a childhood, Linklater takes the audience on a journey that reveals every aspect of young, American life. By taking cinematic snapshots of the landmarks in a relate-able character’s life, and editing together a photo album of a film, Linklater makes what is seemingly normal, mundane, and human significant and moving.
Mason says in one of his closing lines, “It’s always right now”. Boyhood is a triumphant film about many “present times” woven together that make sense of why the “present now” exists.