Editor’s Notes: Boyhood is now playing in limited release. For more coverage on the film, read Mel’s interview with its director, Richard Linklater.
As Richard Linklater’s (the Before trilogy, Bernie, Dazed & Confused) 12-years-in-the-making film, Boyhood, reaches the end of its nearly three-hour running time, Patricia Arquette’s character, a character the audience has raptly watched change and evolve over that three-hour running time, utters a heartrending lament, not just for the passage of time, the ceaseless unfolding of time one of Linklater’s central themes, but a profound, soul-wrenching lament for opportunities missed, choices not taken, and a limited (as opposed to limitless) future without one of the cornerstones of her identity, motherhood. Motherhood and fatherhood also receive a thoughtful, provocative exploration in the semi-aptly titled Boyhood, but it’s just as much an exploration of the complexities and contradictions of a particular family and the positive-negative impact of seemingly mundane events (here momentous, if not epic-scaled).
… it’s just as much an exploration of the complexities and contradictions of a particular family and the positive-negative impact of seemingly mundane events…
Linklater took a considerable risk when he embarked on his 12-year project (2001-2013). Funding could have disappeared, key actors could have become permanently unavailable, and his lead, Ellar Coltrane, a six-year-old boy, could have grown disinterested in the role or dropped out for any number of reasons. Linklater also had to find and maintain the narrative spine connecting Coltrane’s character, Mason, across that world-changing 12-year expanse. He found it in the everyday events experienced in small towns and big cities across America and elsewhere: The divorce of ill-matched parents and the consequences for Mason (actually Mason, Jr.) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei). Linklater altogether skips shooting the break-up scene, instead picking up post-break-up, with the temporary return of Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke), a failed musician, after several months away working on a fishing boat in Alaska.
The hints of reconciliation – typical fodder for family-centered dramas – go nowhere. Whatever feelings Mason’s parents had or might still have can’t overcome fundamental differences, leaving a perpetually wary, observant Mason obviously disappointed. Disappointment follows disappointment, however, as Mason’s mother, eager for a more secure, financial future and a professional career of her own, decides to go back to college to get a degree. One move later and Mason finds himself in an unfamiliar environment, an unfamiliar school, and unfamiliar students. Again subtlety tweaking expectations, Linklater doesn’t focus on Mason’s loneliness or melancholy. His father periodically reenters his life (the “good, fun parent”) while his mother keeps it all together. For his part, Mason forms friendships, if not with ease, then with something approaching an ease that belies his introversion.
With Mason’s father absent for long stretches of Boyhood, the focus repeatedly shifts to Mason’s mother, including a romantic relationship (later marriage) to a much older college professor, a so-called “blended” family minus the usual rivalries and pettiness expected in step-siblings on film, but plus a belligerent, alcohol-abusing step-father that dooms the relationship. A second stepfather, a war veteran-turned-corrections officer, shares some of the same proclivities, amply suggesting the choices in men Mason’s mother repeatedly make are part of a self-destructive pattern. Relationships, personal and professional, ebb and flow (another one of Boyhood’s key themes). Despite all expectations (patterns of behavior repeating ad infinitum), Mason’s father finds emotional and personal stability. All the while Mason grows up, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes noticeably, his face losing, gaining, then losing again its pudginess, his body elongating into the body of a young adult.
Conscious too of the link between memories and music, Linklater uses music cues to signal the passage of time.
Linklater rewards (and connects) Mason’s keen observational skills into a passion for photography (another thematic link). Photography offers Mason a way to define himself apart from his relationships with his parents, sister, friends, and later, his first serious girlfriend. Photography also gives Mason the first glimmer of independence, of choice, of externalizing how he sees and experiences the outer world, of turning Mason’s subjective reality into an objective reality. It also gives him the first real measure of control over his life, control otherwise missing given Mason’s dependent status on his parents (his mother more than his father). And where earlier iterations of Mason said little, the older Mason begins to engage with the world around him more actively, engaging in not just the rites-of-passage typical of boys his age, social standing, class, and yes, race/ethnicity (particularized to Texas too, of course), but also the metaphysical questing typical of Linklater’s more loquacious characters (the Before trilogy certainly, but many others too).
Conscious too of the link between memories and music, Linklater uses music cues to signal the passage of time. Music cues become all the more important due to Linklater’s deliberate decision to eschew chapter titles or title cards to signpost the passage of time. It undoubtedly makes for an occasionally jarring, disorienting effect, but it also makes sense as part of Linklater’s overarching decision to avoid the usual signifiers of family dramas or more traditional narratives. When Linklater takes Coltrane – a young actor who both literally grew into the role and into Linklater’s indispensable collaborators on Boyhood – to the edge of young adulthood and the first real taste of parent-free independence (college), he’s also taken the audience with him on a unique, if at times overlong and meandering, journey.
If at times overlong and meandering, Boyhood utters a heartrending lament, not just for the passage of time, the ceaseless unfolding of time one of Linklater’s central themes, but a profound, soul-wrenching lament for opportunities missed and choices not taken.