I have grown up watching the films of Richard Linklater. When I was 10, School of Rock was the perfect film for me at that stage in my life – it is a film about counter-culturalism framed through a stifled education system. Dazed and Confused was the film for me at age 14, for largely the same reasons. When I was around 16, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset provided an acute conflation of romanticism and cynicism that matched my adolescent worldview. Slacker was the film for me when I finished school, possessing the same fractured, existential uncertainty that I was then consumed by, and largely still feel encumbered by today. Before Midnight is the film for the future me; I adore it now, but the film’s explication of long-term relationships and aging will perhaps only truly affect me in thirty or more years from now.
A filmmaker like Linklater holds so much good will with me already, and few other directors have shaped my perspective like Linklater. Entering Boyhood, it was difficult for me to leave my sappily sentimental feelings towards Linklater’s directorial style at the door and be truly objective. Nonetheless, I sincerely believe that Boyhood is the film for me at this stage in my life.
Boyhood was filmed and chronicled across twelve years with a singular cast, constituting a bildungsroman of its protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane). The film, which should colloquially be known as 12 Years a Boy, is, contrary to its title, not necessarily a film about boyhood. Nor is it exclusively a film about adolescence in general, or girlhood, or motherhood, or fatherhood, or boyz n the hood. The Antoine Doinel films and ‘Up’ documentaries have already explored that across a protracted period of time, albeit not within one film. While, superficially, the film’s structural conceit delineates the story of one boy ‘growing up’, Linklater is too intellectual a filmmaker to frame a narrative around trite, pedestrian themes concerning adolescent angst.
It is a film more specific than that – Mason is not entirely constructed as a surrogate for all Western humanity – yet ultimately more universal than that – Mason is relatable not only to anyone who has been a boy, but to anyone who has ever known a boy. The film is about the ephemeral passage of time; it details how past memories are transcribed and transferred between generations – from the Gen X slackers of Slacker to the digital ennui of the millennials in Boyhood. It is an ethnographic work that, while capturing a unique culture and context, examines the guise of history, and how history repeats and replicates itself across the Mobius strip continuum that is time.
Boyhood is essentially structured in two acts. The first act is filled with short, continuous Steadycam oners that track, both physically and metaphorically, Mason’s physical and metaphoric growth. We are interpolated as external spectators, viewing Mason’s life from the outside. His mother Liv, played with exquisite subtlety by Patricia Arquette, has almost as much screen time as Mason, as does Mason’s older sister Samantha, played with a quiet yet lived-in exuberance by Richard Linklater’s daughter Lorelai Linklater. Mason’s father, Mason Senior, is also a regular presence, portrayed with charm and decency by the reliable Ethan Hawke. The film’s in media res prevents us from understanding the reason for Mason’s parents’ breakup, which occurred well before the events of the film.
The second act is the antithesis. Mason’s characterisation becomes the salient point, and far from being the symbiotic organisms as they are in the first act, the secondary characters start to feed off Mason rather than each other. We start to see the world from his point-of-view, rather than see him from the world’s point-of-view. After a formative “darkroom chat” with his photography teacher, insights into Mason’s developing artistry, cynicism and lackadaisical ethos become more frequent and more acute.
On a first glance, the first act seems far inferior to the second act. It relies on conventional storytelling to the extent where it becomes predictable and overtly telegraphed – from the moment Mason’s first stepfather, Bill,is shown drinking an alcoholic beverage, you know he is going to be a drunken, assaultive prick because that is the semiotic assumption. However, it gradually becomes crystallised that the first act is structured almost like a montage – ages six to sixteen rush by with rapid succession and kinetic movement, instilled through Linklater’s brisk editing of fairly taut and concise scenes. The first act is a series of oneiric, confabulated memories.
The only reason we are aware of our youth is because we’ve seen video tapes and home movies where we feature, and we have heard stories about ourselves from our parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. We live in a hyperreal world, where we cannot discern between our own memories, the memories of others, dreams, and what we have seen on television and in cinema. We cannot accurately remember the past, and Ellar Coltrane’s entire memory of his young childhood has inevitably been informed by his viewings of Boyhood. The first act, with its ostensibly clichéd reliance on conceits like drunken stepfathers and seemingly trite lines of dialogue like “life doesn’t give you bumpers”, is as much about the extent to which art and memory are reliable transcribers of the past. The first act deliberately feels like a conventional movie with a linear structure, because that is how we construe our own childhoods.
The second act, in contrast, evokes the Linklater of Slacker; the structurally experimental filmmaker whose dialogue is fixated on seemingly trivial observations that cut to the heart of our nihilistic futility. Mason’s worldview has been subtly and gradually formed throughout the film. His emerging interest in photography, displayed photographing the crowd and the injured players at a high-school football game rather than the match itself, is self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical; both Linklater and Mason are forced to perceive their existence through a unique lens in order to achieve artistic success. When Mason rants to his girlfriend about the futility of Facebook, and later compares himself to a man sitting alone in a restaurant talking about space to himself, Mason becomes one of the characters from Slacker – a guy ranting about existential quandaries to people who aren’t listening.
The development of Mason’s perspicacity is mirrored in the soundtrack, a collage of disparate, contemporaneous pop music. The populism of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ and the tackiness of Travis Barker’s ‘Soulja Boy’ remix opens the film, yet the music progresses through Vampire Weekend’s debut album and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs in a way that matches its audience’s shifting artistic tastes. To someone who hasn’t grown up with these musical cues as part of the social lexicon, the music could seem overdone and clumsily inserted as a narrative device, but as someone almost exactly Mason’s age at the end of the film, the music felt natural. Throughout, Linklater provides an ironic cognitive dissonance between music, theme and image. The ‘Soulja Boy’ remix precedes a low-angle shot of Liv lying on the ground after being beaten by her drunk husband. Yo La Tengo’s ‘I’ll Be Around’ is layered on a montage of Mason and his girlfriend walking around Austin at dawn, hand in hand. However, this scene is followed almost immediately by their breakup – a reminder of the impermanence of high-school romances which are idealised in so many lowbrow pop-culture soaps.
The pop culture references trigger recall on the part of the audience, further prompting the audience to experience Mason’s worldview. I was reminded of dressing up to buy the sixth Harry Potter book, listening to The Suburbs when it was released, watching The Dark Knight and Tropic Thunder in 2008, and glimpsing Funny or Die videos back when the Internet was still something of a novelty. While Slacker deconstructed the lives of people living through the Gulf War, examining the Baudrillardian idea that the Gulf War ‘did not take place’, the presence of the Iraq War and the transition from Bush to Obama is an omnipresent reality again filtered through the television screen in Boyhood. Linklater is well aware that this era will only be remembered because of the art and media in which it has been portrayed. Art is a means of recording time for future generations, and this is facilitated by cinema – a medium that inherently compresses time through Eisensteinian editing. In doing so, he has made a film that accurately captures the culture of the millennials. Linklater is a baby boomer who has perhaps made the quintessential films about Generation X and Generation Y.
Boyhood is as much about the formation of today’s history as it is about the concept of history itself. Time is circular, and history is cyclically repeated and subverted. Liv, Mason’s mother, marries her university lecturer, who transpires as a horribly abusive drunk. Later, when she is a university lecturer, she marries one of her students, a subversion of the past with the same result – another drunken husband. Mason Senior is depicted without much familial stability early in the film, living with his laissez-faire musician friend Jimmy. Yet suddenly, he has a new wife and a young child, the suggestion being he has rushed into familial obligations once again, as he did with Liv.
Liv states that she “spent half [her] life acquiring all this shit, and [she’ll] spend the next half giving it all away”. Life, like Boyhood, has two acts with a cyclic structure, calling to mind Shakespearean ideals of the second childhood that is old age. Time rushes past before we can stop to ponder, and before we have time to ponder it, it’s our “fucking funeral” (to quote Liv again). Boyhood ends with Mason and a girl he has just met staring into the distance, the void, the camera, pondering their existentially uncertain futures. Mason is studying photography while his companion is studying dance, and neither fields are particularly stable career paths. In the digital age, professional photography is diminishing while Mason continues to take still photographs on celluloid, a sly nod on Linklater’s part to the fact that Boyhood was entirely shot on 35mm. Mason and the girl are at Big Ben, a picturesque region of mountainous plains where Mason and his father often would go camping; another circular repetition of history. Mason’s college roommate can be heard yelling “it is as if all of time has led to this moment”. They are all mildly stoned.
I have now seen Boyhood twice, and both times I was amongst the first people in the world to see it. For a film made on this large a scale, there are inevitable imperfections: moments when creative inspiration was lacking (a motif involving a man who fixed one of Liv’s water pipes springs to mind), and moments when inspiration was abundant. It is an imperfect masterpiece. It is as messy, flawed, funny and ultimately real as the everyday. Watching Boyhood was like growing up again and, as always, Richard Linklater was guiding the way for me.