Films: Boyhood

Cinema In the Present Tense ● by Brandon Walsh


The uncredited main character of Richard Linklater’s latest film Boyhood is time, and time will tell. Shot over 12 years with the same actors, the audience is invited to watch both the characters and story evolve over time. In the spirit of the longitudinal films of Antoine Doinel, the Up documentary series, and Linklater’s own Before… trilogy, Boyhood compresses time and human experience in a way previously unseen to the art form.

The film is chaptered by various markers of growing up, often without the broader narrative explanation to be expected from mainstream cinema. When we see a young Mason pour mustard on the hot dog his dad bought for him at a baseball game, we aren’t explicitly told what it means to him, but the seemingly mundane focus helps to explain the bond with his father as the film progresses. The joy of Boyhood comes with watching seeds like this grow, in a way that the story allows itself to be told by unfolding in new and interesting ways somehow avoiding most audience-pandering cause/effect conventions. In doing so Linklater places trust in the audience’s own humanity to decide which moments to attribute importance, the very same logic that goes for one’s own life. As a result, there are numerous ways to identify with the film (nostalgic/prospective as a parent/child), and all are valid.

Archibald MacLeish writes at the end of “Ars Poetica” that a poem, “should not mean/But be,” a notion meant to match the fluid subjectivity of life. The argument could be made that more films have been employing a mode of “visual poetry,” leaving more elliptical moments meant to question our relationship with time rather than a straightforward narrative payoff across scenes. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder come to mind as two modern examples of narrative films with such moments, albeit with a stronger regard for imagery over character. A thesis of Boyhood could be that as a kid, things just sort of happen to you, and that we’re all thrown into life without much guidance of how to do it right, left to stare at the clouds. Mason’s boyhood vulnerability drifts away with his increasing willingness to flow with the inexplicable. He begins to trust others, depend on himself, love and reciprocate, consider the consequence of his actions, gaining the qualities of a well-rounded adult.

As Mason matures, so does the film itself, leaving plot-centric scenes for more focused philosophical conversations, without the traditional motive of sequential action. The film’s aspirations are lofty, but reaches them by avoiding metaphor-laden humanitarian commentary well recognized in the Oscar-winning canon of great film. Late in the film, Mason talks with a young woman who works with kids approaching their “awkward years,” and the reality hits that we’ve watched Mason live through his. Life is presented as no more or less than a series of events, but more than the sum of its seconds.

For those who have been following Linklater’s filmography, the film’s reclining structure will come as little surprise. However, the later scenes serve a deeper purpose. Whereas a film like Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are encourages the audience to interpret the events with a child character’s limited perspective, Linklater invites a broad understanding of childhood and adolescence, one that recognizes the nuanced effects of parents and environment on a growing mind, but also understands the individual can’t entirely be defined by his/her surroundings. Therein lies the onward-explorative spirit of Boyhood, a film with as much ineffable heart and consciousness as its characters.

At its very best, film packages the experience of consciousness into digestible entertainment. It’s phenomenology made tangible, a personal study that invites a deeper appreciation of the impermanence of life. Time survives in retrospect, but it only moves forward. In expressing this through Linklater’s production, we’re reminded the death of time is life in the ongoing present. Much like the end of Linklater’s Before Midnight, the film doesn’t end as much as it stops presenting itself to us on a screen. The rest is on us.

[Brandon Walsh works for Facets, whose Cinémathèque is an independent art house theater in Chicago that screens international film targeted to younger audiences.]


The Ryder ● September 2014