Watching Boyhood is a reminder that all our lives are a series of seemingly insignificant vignettes that both reveal and shape who we are. Boyhood follows an episodic narrative style. It is driven by character and theme rather than plot. Shot over a 12-year period, scenes play out like a series of snapshots that communicate the mood and tone of what is happening each year.
It’s no accident that photography plays an important role in the film. Boyhood is like watching time-lapse photography. The audience sees Patricia Arquette’s hairstyles and weight fluctuate as she ages 12 years in a little under three hours. Ethan Hawke’s face develops lines. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up before our very eyes.
While the film is called Boyhood and focuses on Mason, it’s about the entire family. Each relationship provides a different perspective on Mason’s 12-year journey. We follow Mason, along with his older sister and parents, through his K-12th grade years. Those are powerless years for children. Adults at home and at school control where they live, what they do, and where they are taken. Linklater says that he had the idea of children feeling trapped in his mind as he he made the film. Mason’s responses to the adults in his life early in the film reflect that.
Childhood years are powerful years. Children grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as they process ideas and experiences, and develop skills that will influence the rest of their lives. Throughout the film Mason’s experiences and relationships cause him to become more self-aware. Watching him grow up on screen is more like witnessing the life than being told a story. While the film is beautifully and carefully crafted, it is not a neat little coming-of-age story but an epic journey focused on the nuances of real life.
Because the kids live with her, Mom is doing the lion’s share of parenting. The kids witness more of her day-to-day life and therefore more of her struggles. Her marriages, college, and jobs drive much of the change that takes place in the children’s lives. As years go by she matures as a parent, becoming less reactive and more responsive. Life is hard and messy and she’s a survivor. I’m not gonna lie, I teared up during the scene when Mason leaves for college and she realizes that it’s all gone by so fast and now its over.
Ethan Hawke plays Mason’s dad who takes awhile to warm up to his responsibilities as a father. When he does, his determination to connect and communicate with his kids leads to one of the most hilariously awkward moments in the film when he tries to talk about sex to his daughter Samantha, played by Richard Linklater’s daughter Lorelei. In typical Linklater narrative there is no dramatic event that brings him to maturity, rather time and life keep moving him forward. It’s difficult to tell whether his dreams morph or he is simply settling, but by the end of the film he has set aside his dream of being a musician, remarried, and become an insurance salesman driving a mini-van. The beautiful thing is that he enjoys himself and accepts himself in this life.
I found this film to be full of grace, showing each character with a generous realism. Even the abusive alcoholic step-father and Ned-Flanders-like boss are portrayed as human beings rather than plot devices. With the religious step-grandparents, the camera records a bit of a sermon at church and the gift of a Bible without a lot of commentary on the validity of faith. The focus is on the kindness of the grandparents. The sermon theme was “blessed is he that has not seen and yet believes.” The spirit of hope and expectation is woven throughout the film.
While growing up is a universal experience, Boyhood has a distinct sense of time and place. Those familiar with Houston, Austin, or San Marcos Texas will recognize familiar locations and local references. Millennials will recognize so many pop culture references from their childhood. I came across this Complete Pop Culture Catalog from Boyhood. As a parent of millennials. family memories kept popping into my head throughout the film.
Linklater’s naturalistic style is part of this familiarity. Every place, every character feels like real life with a camera watching. In the last line in the film, Mason says “it’s always right now.” And that is the truth of Boyhood, that all these seemingly mundane right now moments are episodes in the stories of our lives, the journey each of us takes toward maturity.
Witnessing this series of now moments in the life of this one boy resolve into the final now: Mason is who he is at that moment because of all the moments that lead up to it. Boyhood inspires hopefulness and optimism. All the uncertainty of young adulthood lies before him just as the uncertainty of childhood lay before him in that first scene in the film. Mason is going to be fine. So is his mom.