“Just Keep It Natural”: The Tao of Boyhood

boyhoodYes, this one took me forever to see, but I’m quite glad that I finally did.

It’s hard to even find the words to begin discussing Boyhood, a movie that is both so epic and yet so intimate. Skipping past the logistical/conceptual marvel that the movie is (and it very much is that), as a story and an expression of childhood it is simply beautiful. Even the focal point of “childhood” is really just a way of exploring the nature of time and change, and if that sounds like a pretentious-ass premise for a movie I can assure you that Boyhood is one of the most grounded and relatable films I have ever seen.

One of the more telling (if ultimately insignificant) aspects of Boyhood is the steady rhythm of nostalgic chuckles that rang out at the glimpse of various pop culture items from the past 12 years. Dragonball Z, Gameboy Advance, Star Wars, Britney Spears and Funny or Die all appear here in ways that are familiar and comforting, and help ease us mentally back to that same time in our own lives. On that most superficial level, Linklater already succeeds; even his use of zeitgeist-driving music feels natural and honest when it could have easily felt cheap and tone-deaf. But of course that is just aesthetics; the true power of the movie lies much deeper than that.

Over the course of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, the one recurring element is the sense of impermanence (to be clear, I’m not referencing the Buddhist doctrine per se, although its definition does fit the nature of the film). One of the earliest moments of the movie shows Mason having to paint over his and his sister’s (Lorelei Linklater) height marks on the doorframe of their bedroom, a moment that quietly and quickly denotes the idea of change and the march of time. This is also where the movie’s length becomes a real asset: there are random moments during the last third where it would suddenly occur to me that “Wow, these are the same kids I just saw having a pillow fight in their bunkbed.” And I realized much later that some characters, such as Mason’s best friend in the beginning of the film, and his stepsiblings from the middle, are never even seen or talked about again, something that barely even registers during the movie itself. This is one of the grander accomplishments of Boyhood: it truly captures the flow of time, especially in your youth, where you don’t even notice the people that are gone or how much time has gone by, until those random moments where you suddenly remember… and then forget again.

But even as Linklater demonstrates the progression of time so well, he also provides the two different ways to cope with it, in the form of Mason’s parents. Dad (Ethan Hawke) espouses the idea of living in the moment, and trying to appreciate what you have when you have it, because it can be gone before you know it. Meanwhile, Mom (Patricia Arquette) demonstrates the more pragmatic side, of preparing for the future and being ready for what comes next. Neither one is fully right, and both viewpoints come with a cost: Dad’s looseness makes him unable to be there for his family when they need him most, while Mom’s climbing of the ladder makes her unsure of what to do next when all the accomplishments have been completed. Funnily enough, there is one moment that crystallizes both sides of this coin, and it doesn’t involve either parent.

There is a conversation between a high-school-age Mason and his photography teacher, who preaches that Mason has to match his artistic talent with old-fashioned work ethic if he wants to make it anywhere. It reminded me of a talk I had with one of my Digital Video teachers in college, who once told me that “You’re a great filmmaker but you’re a terrible student.” At the time I took it as a compliment, but now I recognize the need for commitment and perseverance that my schoolwork lacked. It’s a conversation that I’m sure many aspiring artists have had with their teachers through the years, and one that registers with me now more than ever as I redouble my efforts to write a screenplay of my own. It’s a moment that, to me, summarizes the core of the film very well: embrace where you are and what you’re doing now, but also don’t stop working towards what’s next. In the end, it seems that Mason might have found that balance, and hopefully I can too.

Boyhood does so many things right, and succeeds on so many levels. In the end, the simplest way to summarize it is that it truly lives up to its title. It’s a movie that entertains, haunts, resonates, enlightens and inspires… just as life does. It serves as a reminder to both enjoy the things that are in our lives now while also keeping an eye on what we want next, and to not let either of those things rule us completely. It is a distinctly REAL movie, and one that will hold true as long as there are still boys growing up.

3 Comments on ““Just Keep It Natural”: The Tao of Boyhood”

  1. shiran says:

    It’s interesting, I was really looking forward to seeing this, and I loved watching it, but it was hard for me to think of anything to say when we left the theater. It’s one of the few movies that’s such a self-contained and perfect experience — I’d almost rather just rewatch it than dissect it.

    The shot of Mason looking out the car window as they’re moving away, just missing his best friend as he’s riding up on his bike and waving made me tear up in the theater, and it’s making me tear up now. What a beautifully visual way to showcase how easily everything slips away. Before I moved to the US I had a best friend, Anastasia, who I was extremely close with. We both cried so much when my parents decided to move and we made all these grand childish plans to write and call and visit each other. I can barely remember her now, but what makes me even sadder is that I remember that 6-year-old version of myself even less. Boyhood really made me feel that loss in a way I never expected. Crazy how time can make you a stranger even to yourself. Time’s a bitch.


    • brendanfh says:

      There’s nothing pretentious about that at all! It really is the sort of film that calls up those experiences in a natural and emotional fashion. And it very much catches you up in the moment, just the way that life can; every stage in the movie felt like it was the whole movie, and next thing you knew it was a year later and everything would be different. And it seems so effortless in doing so.

  2. […] Boyhood: I could say that 2014 was a very transitional year for me, but the truth is that every year- every moment really- is transitional, and this is what Boyhood captures perfectly from beginning to end. Saying so much about childhood, parenthood, and the passage of time, Richard Linklater’s latest opus on regular ol’ life is nothing short of breathtaking. But even as the film illuminates the hidden beauty of life, it stays completely grounded and relatable to the audience, and that is Boyhood’s true power. In completing that high-wire act, Linklater and company are able to demonstrate to us the beauty of our own lives and that is why the film is ultimately so transcendent. This is a movie that people will relate to and embrace for generations, and there may be no greater accomplishment in the world of art. […]

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