I was finally able to see Boyhood this week. It came out over the summer when I was in South Carolina, which is not a good place to be if you want to see the latest indie film (I have yet to see Snowpiercer too).
But I did see Boyhood this week and in some respects it’s a frustrating movie. There’s little structure, if any, to the film. Which makes sense; a movie filmed over twelve years would be hard pressed to tell a single story. A strong narrative usually takes place over a relatively small amount of time, it keeps it brisk and gives urgency to the proceedings. It’d be far less interesting if Luke, Han, and Leia arrived at Yavin 4 while the Death Star was a week away. Boyhood disagrees with that philosophy.
Like I said, it’s frustrating. Structure should be what makes a story work and, yes, Boyhood is still a story. And, yes, it does still work. But why, and how? There’s no grand journey that the ‘hero’ Mason embarks on; there’s no inciting incident, midpoint, or climax. See, Boyhood’s story is a slice of life, very much in the way that something like Seinfeld purports to be. Except more so. In the long run, though, Boyhood is incomparable and stands out as being unlike anything else in cinemas today. It’s a singular movie that demands to be met on its own terms.
So what are those terms? Boyhood feels in some ways like a period piece, the period in question being from May 2002 to late 2013. The film opens to the sound of Coldplay’s “Yellow” and various other songs show up throughout the film that serve primarily to date certain scenes but also managing to show a sort of evolution of what’s been on the radio for the last decade and a bit. In early scenes we see Dragonball Z on TV, later on we hear the kids discussing Revenge of the Sith, and still later on The Dark Knight is mentioned as being a favorite movie of the year. Pop culture landmarks like Halo 2, a song from High School Musical, and even Funny or Die’s “The Landlord” make appearances. It’s half winking at the audience, and yet also saying “remember when this happened?” To people my age, it’s reminding us of what it was like growing up.
But Boyhood does not run on nostalgia alone. It also focuses on the impermanence of life. Mason and his sister Samantha’s friends don’t stick around; the friends they’re hanging out with and even significant others change from time jump to time jump. The only ones who are always there are their mother Olivia and their father, Mason Sr. Natures of relationships change too; early on Olivia is distant towards her children’s father, but later on she becomes much more cordial. We never see the incidents that catalyzed the change, but are instead left with the feeling that time itself is what changes them.
Here lies another interesting choice taken by director Richard Linklater and crew: with very few exceptions Boyhood skips the highs of life in favor of the in-betweens. We don’t see important events like Mason’s first day of middle school or his prom, events that crop up in what seems like every movie about youth ever. Instead the film will look at moments before or after, instead our information of prom comes from a terse post-breakup talk between him and a girl he was dating; we see Mason coming home from graduation rather than him throwing his cap in the air. There’s restraint on the part of the filmmakers, and it’s this restraint that makes the film feel so much like life.
As the movie draws to its close we see a now-adult Mason saying goodbye to his mother as he prepares to go to college. Tearfully, she says “I thought there would be more.” It’s a summarizing look at life and the film; people come and people go and things end. At the film’s close, Mason and some new friends are trekking through a park and Mason is asked if people seize moments or if they’re seized by moments. His response — a statement so incredibly on-the-nose it almost breaks the fourth wall —is that they’re always in the moment. On-the-nose or not, it is what life is: a series of moments we’re stuck in — and Boyhood captures that splendidly.