With no plot whatsoever to speak of, no memorable action scenes, and no earth shattering new philosophy on life, Richard Linklater’s recent movie Boyhood has on the face of it, much to be underwhelmed by. Already knowing the premise of the movie I had assumed that it would be ideal to review for ‘The Forever Years’ but now, only a month or so after viewing it, I struggle to recall much of the detail.
So I was curious that despite this, I would still rate it as a must see. What was going on here? What essence of the human condition did it cause to resonate in me? Why do I want my own kids to watch this movie?
Let’s be done with some of the more superficial reasons first. Patricia Arquette – what’s not to like? No surprises at all re her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win in her role of mum – a wonderfully nuanced performance. The rest of the cast are solid too – especially Ellar Coltrane in the title role.
The character Mason (Coltrain) with his “Mum” and “sister” early on in the movie
And speaking of Coltrane, I’m sure most people are aware that this film was shot over twelve years with the same cast so that we actually do see the character Mason, literally grow up on the screen in front of us. Much has been made of this – “different & daring”, “an important landmark in how great films can be made”, “a master stroke in casting” and so on. For me, this aspect of the movie was irrelevant and frankly unnecessary – a cool thing to have done, sure, but it added nothing to the movie per se. I’m perfectly used to effortlessly suspending disbelief when it comes to characters aging across lifetimes in movies. If it hadn’t been such a talking point prior to its release, I would never have noticed it was the same actor throughout – simply because I had assumed, as I do in ALL such movies, that of course it was the same person!
The next possible reason for loving this movie is a much more subjective one and probably not one that will influence too many others. Richard Linklater, the director. The first movie of his I saw was Waking Life. This is a mind-bending exploration of the fringes of dreams, perception, and reality, a ‘meaning of life’ movie – a thinking man’s Matrix. With both Ethan Hawke and Linklater’s own daughter, Loralei, featuring in both movies, there is a cross-over effect that makes it difficult for me not to view the second movie in the same light as the first. I have watched Waking Life probably at least 15 times now and each time find in it something amazing and new. How could a movie from such a director not be great?
I recently watched another classic coming of age movie with my older boys. Stand by Me has to be one of my all-time top 10 movies. It captures an essence of boyhood that we might all have wanted to experience – an exciting, yet serious and scary, adventure with our best friends, aged twelve, coloured with humour, loyalty, loss and grief. All this narrated via the nostalgic voice of a middle aged man with his own children who desperately misses his “forever years” and the friends that inhabited them. But Stand by Me isn’t actually how it was for most of us, and probably not even how it was for the author (Stephen King), on whose short story it was based. It depicts a golden age, an end to innocence, and that inexorable creep of the world turning from the primary colours of right and wrong, to the smudgy beige that life resigns us to.
But Boyhood is not nostalgic. It doesn’t glorify the highs or over-dramatise the lows. It depicts an average life. It could as easily have based the story on your life or mine. And it’s not just about the boy. We see each character grow, change, evolve over the course of twelve years – and the multiple interactions between individual characters also develop and change. It’s not the things that are said and done that are memorable, but as often the things that are not said or not done. It’s the expression that passes between mother and son, a pause in the conversation between the parents, a defiant pose by the sister, – it’s these, often tiny, subtleties that cause us to ‘know’ these people.
There’s almost a sense of The Truman Show here – though we’re not watching for entertainment, nor for a story line, nor action, nor thrills, – we’re watching real people, feeling what real people feel, and understanding why they do what they do. It’s almost too personal and slightly uncomfortable – it doesn’t give us the personal space we expect in most movies. They are you, they are me, they are every person. We come away understanding a little better, the thing we might call the human condition.
Meet the cast: Dad (Ethan Hawke), Mason (Ellar Coltrane), Mum (Patricia Arquette), Grandma (Libby Villari), and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). One of the later scenes of the film.
I said that I wanted my own children to some day see this movie. I couldn’t initially pinpoint exactly why. It occurred to me that it might be to illustrate some aspect of choices and consequences, and I’m sure there are probably some good examples that could be extracted here. But somehow I felt it was something deeper than this. It wasn’t really until the final scene that the idea came into focus.
The tough times, whether they applied to just the boy, or his mother, or the entire family, were always short-lived. Sure, the movie skips ahead months or occasionally even years at a time, so of course things move on and things get better or people adjust. But in our own lives, and especially in the lives of children, these times truly can seem like “forever”. We believe “things will always be this bad. There’s no way I can see this getting better. How can I face a future like this?” The movie provides a fast forward to the near future and gives real meaning to the wise advice from the well known anecdote, “it will pass”.
Seeing this repeatedly throughout the movie, reinforces the concept that life is a journey, not a destination. It’s a bit like Dunedin weather – if you don’t like it, wait 20 minutes! Understanding this about life gives you a resilience that bolsters your faith that dark clouds will give way to sunshine, and prepares you, without fear, for their return.
In the final scene there is a sense of newness, an exciting future, and a joie de vivre that allows Mason to truly take happiness from the fullness of his life so far, and take on with confidence, whatever the future holds for him. This resilience is the most important thing I would hope my own children might take from the wisdom of Boyhood.
Below: The trailer for “Boyhood”.