By Gabriel Renggli
Just one day after having been swept away by Richard Linklater’s ambitious, life-affirming masterpiece Boyhood, I’m beginning to wonder why this film had the impact on me that it did. First of all: yes, the effect of watching scenes that were shot over the span of 12 years with the same cast, including two children who over the course of the film grow up to be young adults, is mesmerising. And so it would be easy to believe that naturalism is this film’s selling-point. But that’s not quite the case.
The film follows the childhood and adolescence of Mason and his sister Samantha in linear fashion, from early school-days until they move out to attend college. By and large, theirs is an uneventful life, including the often joked-about normality of the patch-work family. In fact, much of what Mason goes through I can relate to from growing up myself – but, and this is the point, not necessarily because I have actually experienced it. Instead, what the film captures is what, in the particular time and place that it portrays, we have been taught to associate with the process of growing up. I asked a friend what she thought about the scenes centring on Samantha, and she said they seemed realistic, but also lacked some of the more mundane elements that form part of everyday life. Her example was that we see that, at a certain point, Sam starts dying her hair, but we do not see the process of dying itself. This, though a detail, fairly well sums up the mixture of reality and idealisation this film presents. There is sports, and camping with the family, there is play and exploration, first romance, intellectual self-finding, and emotional emancipation. But in spite of a number of scenes early on that are difficult to watch (a menacing step-father whom the plot mercifully abandons), it all feels rather polished and safe.
I do not mean to be cynical. In fact, one of the great qualities of this film is how confidently it avoids the breaks of tone that are looming in the wings. For instance, even though Mason encounters his fair share of darkness early on in life (one of the first scenes shows him looking at a dead bird), Linklater resists the temptation to add full-blown tragedy – and thus the mere semblance of depth – to his story. I will not reveal details of the plot, but at one point, someone narrowly avoids a car crash that would have been the logical outcome of their behaviour. This made me think how easy it would have been to let the audience build a strong emotional bond to Mason, only to take it all away, in a cheap symbolic gesture towards the unpredictability of life. In general, symbolism is the major pitfall that this film successfully avoids. In contrast to Terrence Malick’s beautiful but overreaching The Tree of Life, which the early scenes of Boyhood resemble, Linklater’s film stays away from any attempt to mean more than what it is.
It’s just as well that it does, because in the case of Boyhood, any such attempt would have been embarrassing. Which brings me back to what is perhaps this film’s biggest problem. The life it shows is normal to the extent of being normative, and unabashedly so. It tells the story of what it means to become an adult by looking, in particular, at the experience of a boy. A white boy. From a middle class home. Who is straight. And physically able. And so on. We had some discussion in the group of friends who went to see the film together what to make of Mason’s (mild form of) teenage rebellion, but to me, it seemed behaviour largely concerned with his figuring out his place within the existing structures, not with breaking out of them. There is realism in this. A major part of growing up does consist in finding out you have already been placed on all kinds of trajectories you did not even know existed. Yet, simply put, Mason’s eventual decision to study art, though inspired by his personality, does hardly all by itself make him someone who debunks the system. Boyhood leaves the system it inhabits firmly in place; it simply does not worry about it. The film invites you to remember what growing up was like for you. And it does this by providing a version of the “standard” story – for all its dark moments ideal in a certain way – against which many of us have been taught to measure ourselves. But, wisely, it does not attempt to offer an interpretation of what growing up means, in general.
Which is also to say that Boyhood does not acquire any debt which it could be accused of neglecting to pay back. On the question of gender, for instance, note that the film is not called “Childhood,” though this is the sort of nit-picking I would try to avoid with any work less, well, innocent than this one. In a strange way, the film’s simplicity works. The writing, far from conventional wisdoms about the dramatic need for conflict, creates believable and mostly relatable characters. These are brought to life by a very strong cast led by Ellar Coltrane (Mason), Lorelei Linklater (Samantha), and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as their parents. Throughout, the film-making is calm, almost delicate, giving scenes time to develop without ever capsizing into affectedness. The cinematography is absolutely marvellous, and likewise free of stylisation. The soundtrack, too, fits the mood perfectly, and since it consists of pop and rock music contemporary to the story, it adds to what this film arguably does best: conjuring up a picture of what 2002-14 were like for many of us, including some of the cultural and ideological filters through which we saw and see that time. It is all there, from Hot Topic to Facebook. This is also why Boyhood is probably a particularly rewarding film if you are within a decade or so of Mason’s age (I’m 27). Perhaps, the film will become a document of its time – again, ideology and all. Whether it merits study for this reason we will see; it definitely merits viewing. If only for how beautiful and uplifting an experience it is.