MIFF 2014: Boyhood

Boyhood opens on the blank face of a six-year-old, staring at the sky. We stare back expectantly. How do you set the scene for a film that hasn’t yet been made, a life that’s barely been lived? We’re all empty vessels waiting to be filled with his thoughts, dreams, memories. You spend nearly three hours with Boyhood in the cinema, but the physical act of watching it is almost incidental. It instantly becomes a film you once watched, an experience that grafts its memories onto yours. Boyhood is a gift that lets you reminisce about a fictional character’s life more vividly than you remember your own. It’s terrifying and comforting all at once.

For all the fuss over its twelve-year-long shooting process, Boyhood is never once cowed by its premise. It’s no self-consciously curated photo album, nor is it the rose-tinted nostalgia of a Super 8 film. Instead, Richard Linklater fills in the blanks, the deep uncool where children and teenagers actually grow up. Boyhood immediately takes on the rhythms and tone of something resembling “real life” — full of ordinary conversations, and not an ounce of actorly vanity. With so many elements beyond the film’s control, it’s almost as unruly as life itself, constructed more by intuition than some grand design. There’s no real plot to speak of, but nearly everything that happens is fascinatingly mundane. You get the feeling Linklater could create something equally moving from the filler of your own life.

Boyhood is about as light as an epic can possibly feel. It’s not life-changing, but it is life-defining, in the way it stumbles across little, incidental universal truths. As the film opens in 2002, only two years separate Mason and his sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei — but the gap between them is enormous. At only eight, she’s already every precocious, sarcastic older sister; Mason’s barely a person. As he develops his own personality, tastes and sense of humour, her story recedes. Similarly, Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr. initially seems like the typical absent, divorced father — still kind of cool to the kids, a barely-masked burnout to us. But Linklater’s never a cynic, and even as Hawke matures into a responsible adult with a day job and a minivan, he becomes an oddly wise, sage dispenser of advice. On the other hand, Patricia Arquette’s Olivia spends so much time actually parenting, and being defined by her relationship choices, that the film doesn’t afford her the luxury of anything so bourgeois as a “personality”. Boyhood is supposedly Mason’s story, but Linklater’s unflinching portrait of single motherhood is almost devotional. The film’s emotional burden, its willingness to ask life’s unanswerable questions, belongs entirely to her.

If Boyhood has one overarching theme, it’s agency: how “free will”, at whatever age, is always defined by your circumstances. Mason might be Boyhood’s protagonist, but as a child, it’s almost treated as a joke. You don’t want to move house? Too bad! Just wait till you grow up — it doesn’t get any easier when you’re making the decisions, either. As a teenager, you can practically sense a grown-up Mason roll his eyes at all the typical bullshit of adolescence, even as he’s too trapped to rise above it. All the men in Mason’s life — stepfathers, teachers, bosses — project their own insecurities onto him. He’s a dreamer, not masculine enough, not responsible enough, doesn’t care enough about all the little grades and small-town people who pretty soon won’t mean a thing. Even his parents, for all their good intentions, might be bigger role models for their failings than their successes.

And yet, as the film goes from innocence to adolescent ennui, from yearning to the overwhelming possibilities of college-age freedom, you can’t help but feel proud. The film ends with no false hopes, just the quiet optimism that a smart, good-natured kid might have it together as a young adult. After seeing his entire life flash before his eyes, we know he’ll be fine. But more than awe at what we just witnessed, we feel optimism for what’s to come. Boyhood could go on forever, but it’s as if the film’s preparing us to live our own lives. And yet, it’s not like it’ll show you anything you don’t already know. What the fuck can some movie really tell you, anyway?

The cumulative effect of Boyhood feels oddly unlike cinema. Moments that feel underwhelming as they happen suddenly mean everything in hindsight. It’s not more affecting, or more transcendent, just inscrutably different. You could spend another decade dissecting what it means, but in the same time, Richard Linklater will have made another nine movies. We call classics timeless, but Boyhood’s twelve years have already come and gone. Will it stand the test of time? Why even worry? The most vivid memories never leave you.

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