Perhaps no other film has been harder for me to review than this one, and there’s a good reason why. The experience watching Boyhood is entirely unique to itself. Qualifying it the way one would a conventional film no longer makes sense. That’s partially because writer/director Richard Linklater made a movie that — no hyperbole — is completely unlike any other in the history of movies. He unearthed a genius concept and he did it with equally genius execution. Best to put it up front: this is a masterpiece. As the title suggests, Boyhood is about growing up, following a boy named Mason from age 6 to age 18. Only, instead of recasting actors and using state of the art makeup effects ala David Fincher’s Benjamin Button, Linklater attempted what seems impossible. He made the movie by filming the same group of actors a few days a year for 12 years.
This is without a doubt one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of moviemaking. It was shot over 4,000 shooting days and filmed for an official 39 of them, breaking records for the longest shooting schedule ever. The logistics are hard to imagine. Linklater had to find a collection of people, most of whom weren’t actors, to agree to a few days of filming a year for more than a decade. The cast is uniformly great, and moments of acting clumsiness actually add to the realism of the film. Kids don’t always sound eloquent in everyday life, and they don’t always here either. He enlisted his friend Ethan Hawke, who had already worked with him on Before Sunrise. He added Patricia Arquette, his own daughter, and a miracle discovery named Ellar Coltrane. We first meet him when he’s just 6 years old, even though he just turned 20. Coltrane plays Mason, Jr., a bright-eyed boy who, in the words of a high school teacher, sees the world in a really unique way. Thanks to Linklater, for two hours and forty-five minutes, so can we.
Discussing Boyhood is unfeasible without sounding lyrical. You can describe watching as a post-verbal experience, where the fabric of the film seeps into the subconscious in a way that’s closer to poetry or music than to most movies. Linklater does the remarkable, turning poetry into everyday life and everyday life into poetry. Every moment has meaning, though it’s not always obvious what that meaning is. I teared up watching an 18-year-old boy take photographs of a rundown gas station. As I sit typing this, I can’t explain why. It wasn’t a moment of revelation or catharsis but just another day. That’s the magic of Boyhood, and it’s hard to put into words. Linklater uses the smallest moments possible to paint his grand picture of life and living, and it is a transcendent experience unmatched by almost any other in movies.
We watch Mason in constant evolution, and seeing him (and the rest of the cast) age naturally is extraordinary. It didn’t take long before I fostered an intimate connection with Mason and his family, and the writing smartly finds an amazing balance between making them feel like real people and having them still function as archetypes. This relates to how the film appeals to the subconscious in the same way the films of Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Terrance Malick are meant to. For example, the format of filming over 12 years and jumping in time could, and maybe even should, have felt like a gimmick. But here, it’s no more of a gimmick than Kubrick’s four million year jump cut (that’s really a match cut) in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick described his film as a system of symbols and meanings all meant to be felt on a subconscious level beneath the plot. Boyhood has a similar effect, and in the same way 2001’s “main character” is the human race, it could be said Boyhood’s “main character” is life itself.
Linklater conceived the projected after his first of the Before trilogy films, and the similarity in style is palpable. The camera is unobtrusive and avoids loud movements or cinematic techniques (a few oddly placed whip pans aside). Usually, the camera lucidly follows the actors, and it’s almost always in long takes. There doesn’t ever appear to be any artificial lighting, and the camera never, ever, seems “set up.” In other words, the hand of the artist is invisible. On one hand, locations are blandly photographed and the image always appears soft. But what Boyhood lacks in cinematic dexterity it makes up through feeling real. By real, I don’t mean the type of realism that Orson Welles tried to emulate in Citizen Kane, but a realism of the moment. In the film’s elegant final scene, Linklater ruminates on the power of the present. It’s telling that every stylistic technique, from the unannounced shifts in time to the invisible camera, exists to prove Linklater’s point. By orienting viewers to experience the film in the moment, watching Boyhood acts as a running metaphor for how we live life.
I had expected a narrative arc to form, one that will inevitably become befallen with tragedy and hardship, but none ever came. The structure of the story bears more similarity to a memory than to a screenplay, where details are ignored, skipped over, and the focus can be, at times, frustratingly arbitrary. In what may be the finest stroke of genius in a film made up of them, the transitions from age to age and year to year are unannounced. What seems like a treasure trove of key dramatic moments are almost completely ignored, instead focusing on the beauty of the mundane. This, too, is like a memory. How many times when trying to recall a particular event, whether it was a fight with a parent, your first kiss, or starting college, do you think, “Why do I remember that?” By tying the film so closely to the cognitive processes for memory, I felt a sensation I’ve never felt by a movie before. It was almost as though I’m watching memories unfold in real time, like a stream of consciousness, and it felt as though they were my own. That’s the magic of Boyhood.
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