Having just seen Lav Diaz’ ambitious but one-note attempt to capture the passing of time with Norte, The End of History, it is interesting (and possibly revealing to those who may feel that cinema is running out of new means of expression) to see another. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is not as long but it does manage to capture the passage of time more convincingly, since it was filmed over twelve years and the characters onscreen age and change perspectives right in front of you.
It is difficult, awkward and otherwise unrewarding to attempt a plot synopsis of a film like Boyhood since it is only going to lay it out in its barest, least interesting essentials as well as highlight the film’s least exceptional qualities. The film begins in 2002 and ends in 2013, beginning with a six-year old Mason (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane) at school and ending with him on his first day of college. The film documents a childhood that morphs into the beginnings of adulthood via puberty paying particular attention to the people that try to influence Mason and the casual experiences that will make the man.
The film is not solely focussed on Mason, but addresses several different issues and storylines. Mason is not unique and even particularly interesting. The film is impressively laidback – quite a gamble considering how long it took to make – preferring instead to merely luxuriate in the many experiences, the good and the bad, that make up a life. The film is non-judgemental; allowing the audience to make its own mind up about it’s by turns directionless and passionate protagonist. The adults flit around the margins – some are frequently present, some only for a while, others in and out – but they are all fully human, thanks to great performances and a tender and perceptive focus on what really makes people tick. The characters change as time passes – a highly-strung father becomes alcoholic and abusive, a rebellious non-conformist slowly matures and embraces domesticity – but these changes never feel overly contrived or narratively or generically necessary.
Twelve years may seem like too much, even for a 165-minute film, and there is a feeling that the film is more interesting as an experiment than successful at capturing the links between the passage of time and the changing registers of a life, but the film impresses with its honesty and its warmth. And, after all, no one sees their life as an exact documentary record of the previous days, months and years (not even Proust, with his three and a half thousand page opus In Search of Lost Time). The film works like memory – recalling the most significant moments and often missing the contexts. On at least one occasion, Mason dismisses Jim (Brad Hawkins), one of his stepfathers, as a drunken asshole. This may seem unfair to us, since we witnessed, or at least noticed signs of, Jim’s slow decline through financial worries and disappointments and, possibly, post-traumatic stress (the film is too subtle and wise to give simple answers). However, the film is about perspectives and Mason, being a kid, was probably unaware of the things that the adults hide from him.
Several adults try to influence and speak for Mason throughout the film (in fact, one of the film’s major successes is that it imparts a child’s eye view and the viewer may end up viewing the kids with a kind of instinctive trust and the adults with suspicion). The film does not categorize these characters as good or bad influences. One scene between Mason and a teacher is an argument about dreams and pragmatism and will divide viewers La Chinoise-like in terms of whose side they take. Mason ultimately finds the ability and the confidence to make up his own mind, which may just be the unifying theme of the film. Mason searches and finds a voice – not a perfect or entirely mature one, but it is his own. This element of the film, as well as an ending that emphasises openness and possibility, also points to a potential Years 18-30 sequel, which I wouldn’t miss.
Like Before Midnight, Boyhood is a difficult film to review, since it is all about observations about life and relationships and because it is open enough to avoid dogmatism. There is a spirit of John Cassavetes about these films, wherein the story or even an overarching point are somewhat unnecessary and the focus is on reality, human nature and possibilities. Boyhood is packed with nuance and detail and will probably prove to be endlessly rewatchable and new. It is also specific enough to challenge other filmmakers to try their own versions of Boyhood, one that chimes more with their own experiences. If they are as successful and appealing as Linklater’s version, then they will all certainly be worth seeing.