“Just Keep It Natural”: The Tao of Boyhood
Posted: July 25, 2014 Filed under: Rant-a-palooza | Tags: 2000s, Boyhood, Childhood, Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Film Review, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Richard Linklater
Yes, 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.