It takes a long time to grow up. I’m not sure the process ever ends. Our physical bodies may peak at a certain age, but new experiences continue to present themselves as the years pass. We go to the grave still molding our identity and shaping our souls, and this ongoing renaissance of self-reflection may even cascade into the afterlife. Wouldn’t that be something? Infinite maturation.
Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, captures the reverie and conflict of never-ending growth. It’s an epic coming-of-age film about family, parenting, longing, desire, confusion, joy and memory. But it’s also an intimate drama about how we witness time, how we see things from different angles and how these variations produce a multitude of impressions.
Shot over the span of 12 years using the same actors, it provides a unique experience of human development. We literally watch the actors get older over time—particularly the two children at the movie’s center, youngsters who transition into their pubescent skin almost seamlessly through the power of editing.
“It was fascinating,” Linklater tells CityBeat as he sits down in a Los Angeles hotel room during a promotional tour for the film. “There was no precedent for me or anyone else involved with the project. It was about so many things. I knew the well would never run dry.”
When chatting with the Texas-born auteur, it becomes abundantly clear that he’s an artist who’s completely at ease with himself. Instead of being afraid of the world’s many mysteries and challenges, he embraces them.
“Life’s not always going to go your way,” he says, “but you can control your own field.”
Possibility surrounds us at all times, however hard we try to ignore it. Linklater understands the personal nature of this realization, maybe more so than any other American director. That’s why so many of his films—including 1993’s Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) and 2003’s School of Rock—revolt against the crippling power of fear. They highlight driven young people who embrace the opportunity to feel something new, giving themselves over to a wave of fresh experiences with only the slightest hesitation. It’s apparent in Boyhood, as well, when one character says, “You don’t seize the moment; the moment seizes you.”
Children spend much of the day letting new moments seize their attention. They lack the doubt and insecurity that often inhibits adults, recklessly inquiring about ideas and themes that are often difficult for people to discuss. Boyhood encapsulates this same tenacious curiosity, following young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from his mop-haired adolescence all the way through his high-school graduation. We see the good, the bad and the ugly of his life through what Linklater calls “a privileged seat for perceiving the world.” Yet the film never sentimentalizes any of Mason’s experiences. The camera stands as the transit and the filmmaker acts as the surveyor. Distance means everything.
Throughout the movie, Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter) witness only the edges of adulthood, fragments of their single mother’s (Patricia Arquette) various failed relationships and absent father’s (Ethan Hawke) journey to become a man. They’re privy to only sections of their parents’ lives, and, in turn, we are privy only to sections of theirs. This produces a slightly jarring timeline where private and public experiences intersect. Boyhood asks us calmly to fill in the gaps.
“Your parents’ lives don’t always make sense as a kid, but maybe later it does,” Linklater says. “These characters are only seeing pieces. They witness the inconsistent behaviors of adults and only realize later what was going on.”
This motif is apparent during Mason’s younger years, when he spends a lot of time watching and observing, soaking up images and sounds like a sponge. The film’s opening shot cuts from a vast blue sky to the 6-year-old lying down on a grassy knoll looking up, making friends with the passing clouds. It’s clear from the beginning that he’s a collector of visual images.
As a teenager, photography becomes his medium of expression. Boyhood remains aware of the cultural shift toward technology in the new millennium that’s created a generation of children who stare endlessly at screens. Yet Mason’s artistic inquisitiveness is never compromised.
“Mason’s observing life in a certain way,” Linklater says. “It’s hard to say what he’s learned, but you feel, I hope, that he eventually comes to some realization about where he’s been and where he’s going.”
As Mason gets older, eventually becoming a quiet, caring and sometimes brooding teenager who questions the world at every turn, Boyhood becomes increasingly philosophical. It’s a natural progression for a thoughtful film centered on openness, discovery and heartache. Many of the most important conversations unfold with Mason’s father. Pegged early on as a potential deadbeat who shows up only sporadically, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) slowly but surely becomes a key mentor in his son’s life. In fact, father and son rely on each other to evolve.
This proved to be an essential structuring device for Boyhood.
“Ethan and I are both kids of divorce,” Linklater notes. “We thought it would be really interesting to see a father learning on the job. That’s how it always feels parenting, though, regardless of your marital status.”
If Mason and Samantha spend much of the film sprouting—both emotionally and physically—their parents learn the restrictive boundaries of being an adult. When asked about a specific line in the film when Mason Sr. tells his son that “life is expensive,” Linklater addresses the quote’s double meaning: “From the kid’s perspective, it’s all about looking outward, growth and maturity, but from the adult’s, it’s just about negotiation and compromise. That’s what the adult world lays on you.”
Linklater says that this is especially true for the kids’ mother, Olivia. “She’s giving, but not necessarily getting. She realizes parenting is often a one-way thing.” Raising the children by herself, Olivia spends much of Boyhood in the proverbial shadows, struggling to improve her family’s life by going back to school and preserving the family dynamic, no matter how many times it fails.
During a pivotal scene immediately before Mason sets out for college, Olivia declares, “This is the worst day of my life.” It’s one of the most complex moments in the film because it reveals that both parent and child are facing very different crossroads at the same time.
“She’s earned that moment,” Linklater says. “She’s put out so much more. Mason Sr. was kind of a weekend dad. He was there for them, but it was a different game. It seemed fair that she had earned that emotion. That line is very heavy, but it’s true for a lot of parents.”
Taking into consideration Boyhood’s time-capsule vision of the recent past, the film will mean something different to a different people. Parents, teenagers, senior citizens—everyone will have his or her impression.
For Linklater, the filmmaking experience was “cathartic and pretty amazing, a way of looking back on my life and my kid’s life. I like to think it made me a more aware parent.”
Such sensitivity is abundant in the narrative, most noticeably after Mason suffers his first great disappointment at the hands of his high-school girlfriend. Like so many times before, he seeks advice from his father. Mason Sr. doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he unloads the film’s essential thesis in one charming jolt of wisdom: “You’re feeling stuff, and that’s a good thing.”
I certainly felt a lot of stuff watching Boyhood. It was a flashback to the magical possibilities of childhood and the unspoken panic of impending adulthood, but also a foreshadowing to the family-oriented future that hasn’t quite arrived. But most of all, it was a reminder that if I’m living life to its fullest, the growth spurts will never end.