Critical Dialogue: Boyhood
Somewhere in the dialogical midst of the documentary Double Play, James Benning says to Richard Linklater: “I’m not interested in them making another good film . . . I’m more interested in my students finding a new language, a new way of working, of pushing to make the film culture grow.” In the July/August issue of FILM COMMENT, Holly Willis sheds some light on how Boyhood does just that over the course of its radical temporal experiment in depicting experience on screen. “At its core,” writes Willis, “Linklater’s attentive portrait of a Texan boy named Mason is less about what it means to be a young male than it is an evocation of another key theme in the filmmaker’s body of work, namely time. And not just time as a philosophical concept, but our time, the present moment, and what it means to be alive now. Right now.”
That attentiveness is part of why Manohla Dargis in The New York Times memorably declared the film to be a masterpiece of realism—a realism that “is jolting, and so brilliantly realized and understated that it would be easy to overlook.” Yet if the quality and scale of the film’s realist execution is unprecedented, the approach, Willis says, also harkens back to the earliest of mandates in cinema: “to reflect reality as it occurs in time in a sequence of images.” To achieve that feat while filming over the course of 12 years, Linklater stuck with the traditional medium of 35mm film to chronicle the lives of Mason and his family—divorced parents Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater).
And so as the characters grow and age, the look of the movie remains consistent, convincing, and uniquely expressive. Amy Taubin argues in Artforum that the truly fascinating aspect of Boyhood is how it spotlights the temporal paradox tacitly embedded in cinema. The use of 35mm “lends Boyhood the sun-dappled look of a memory piece, despite being couched in the present tense—as a succession of present moments . . . Boyhood in its entirety belongs to the past of cinema, just as Coltrane’s boyhood has passed before the audience ever sees Mason on-screen.”
If the medium of Boyhood looks backward during an era in flux, so, too, does the story, by its very approach and texture. Mason’s story is told as if filtered through memory, frequently omitting the sort of pivotal moments which are paradigmatic of the coming-of-age genre but which in actuality often fail to impress upon the mind. Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot reminds us of what Arquette’s Olivia says to her son toward the end of the film: “Arquette mentions a ‘series of milestones’ to Mason, including ‘the time we thought you were dyslexic, the time we taught you how to ride a bike’; also weddings, divorces, getting her master’s degree. At this point, we realize that we didn’t see any of this onscreen.” These unseen scenarios are the photo-album moments Linklater bypasses in his unassuming epic of growing up, of time passing and life happening, and which resonate with many of our own memories of childhood, whether or not we grew up in Texas with divorced parents, fought with an overachieving older sister, went in costume to a Harry Potter release party, or posted signs for an Obama campaign.
All of which may not be for everyone: even for A. A. Dowd, who wrote of the film favorably for The A.V. Club, Linklater’s formally unconventional narrative comes across as more desultory than drifting and functions as “an excuse to indulge in some of his signature Lefty sloganeering and stoner philosophizing.” But as Double Play director Gabe Klinger observes in a Cinema Scope essay on the film’s approach, “the hidden aim of Boyhood is to dismantle that convention in mainstream narrative cinema that characters’ lives have to be defined by prescribed momentous events.” Linklater’s movie is instead an extraordinary piece of filmmaking and organically shaped drama, in which “Mason Jr.’s personal trajectory is never forced upon us; he becomes assertive and more interesting over time. This makes his maturation plausible in a narrative sense (and the film’s conclusion satisfying), but also aligns with the film’s philosophical view that life’s substance is found in the in-between moments.”Boyhood’s cyclical quality, always between being in the present moment and becoming memory, makes the jumps into Mason’s future all the more tinted with nostalgia, eventually leaving us at the doorstep of college where we as viewers exit Mason’s life. We know that the time before our eyes has already passed, on screen and off, and we wonder: where does it go from here?