Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelai Linklater, Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Richard Linklater.
Something I have never understood about parenting (I don’t have any children) is the way all of my friends who have kids wish time would slow down, as if to say they never want these current moments of childhood to go away. This has never made sense to me: I understand that the innocence of childhood is a beautiful thing, but it disappears pretty quickly, and once that’s gone, it seems to me that kids get better as they get older. They become self-aware, thinking, complicated human beings moving toward some kind of enlightenment and purpose, people who make the world better or worse based on the choices they make. Since I have yet to meet the parent who thinks his or her child is making society worse, it baffles me that these parents aren’t eager to see their kids experience all the great things the world has to offer. Sure, a baby is a sweet, safe, cuddly thing, but it has never tried osso bucco, or seen The Princess Bride, or listened to The Dark Side of the Moon with headphones. Who wants to spend extended amounts of time with someone who can’t recite the Battle of Wits scene with Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes?*
I think parents might really be made uncomfortable by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie filmed across twelve years with the same actors, including the director’s own daughter and a boy who grows up in front of our eyes in a space smaller than three hours. I’ve seen the film twice, with two different groups of people, and almost everyone commented that there were moments when they were unaware whether, from one scene to another, a few hours had passed or several months. If you paid attention to popular music in the years between 2000 and 2012, songs in the soundtrack were indicators, but if you, like most parents I know, stopped paying attention to new music when you became a parent, the songs are all going to sound new, which I imagine is the way a lot of things seem in the time between their kids’ sixth and eighteenth birthdays, just this blur of passing interests, hobbies, fads, and styles.
The nature of time’s passage is the theme of Boyhood, which stars Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Lorelai Linklater as his older sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as their mom, and Ethan Hawke as their dad. How does one mark the passage of time? How does one mark a human being’s growth? Seen one way, twelve years flies by, impossibly morphing children into adults and transforming young parents into empty-nesters. Seen another, it is a crawl, an inexorable process of trials and errors, of unseen, life-endangering near-catastrophes nobody thinks twice about, and of in-the-moment poor decisions that only with the perspective and distance of years can we look back upon as not that big a deal. Mason and his sister grow up before our very eyes, neither the same at the end of the film as at the beginning–in fact, neither young adult looks remotely like the children we meet in the movie’s first few minutes–and while we see the before and after and understand what has happened, we can’t definitely point to more than a few specific moments that contribute to their becoming the people they become. How does one character become kind of cynical and thoughtful, and how does another become responsible and level-headed, and why is yet another still kind of undefined as a person?
Yes, a lot of the mystery of how people become who they are in this film is the result of Linklater’s decisions about what to show us and what to leave out, but this is my point: the director has created a film that gives us the feeling, in three hours, of twelve years’ passing, and he’s left us with the same kind of baffled acceptance of how things are but only the haziest of ideas about how they got that way. He leaves in stuff we’d remember, but the stuff we remember is not necessarily the stuff that shapes us.
I imagine there was really no way to tell what kind of actor Ellar Coltrane was someday going to become, but the early verdict points to some other career. He’s good enough for sure, and I imagine Linklater shaped the story in such a way as to put Coltrane’s personality, acting skills, and screen presence to best use. Lorelei Linklater is somewhat more talented, and a film career is certainly in the realm of possibility. Arquette and Hawke are really, really good, and Arquette is probably going to get some mentions when awards season rolls around.
There is a moment near the end of the film when Mason is leaving for college. He removes something from a box of belongings his mother has packed for him to take along. Mason doesn’t want it. It’s something he created when he was young, something that has no meaning for him today. It means something to his mother, though, and this disparity in the object’s significance upsets her. She has worked so hard, been through so much, and now at the precipice of new lives for them both, she has to accept that the things that mattered to her are not the things that mattered to him. Of course they aren’t. They are different people with different perspectives of these twelve years. In choosing the three hours’ worth of moments that lead to this one, whose perspective is Linklater offering? I don’t have an answer, but I suspect that a meaningful answer tells you what this film is really about. I’m okay with not knowing.
* I realize that not having children of my own disqualifies me in many people’s eyes from making a judgment about young men and women getting better (and more interesting) as they enter their teen years, but I taught teenagers for sixteen years, something many people (most of them parents!) have told me they could never do, and although I sent my students home at the end of every day, because of the nature of the teacher-student relationship, in many ways I have known them better than their parents have. So no, I do not have the perspective of a parent, but I have a different experience that lends my voice at least some creedence.