There is a scene in the animated film Ratatouille where the jaded, merciless film critic (Ed. Note: that should say food critic, not film but I’m leaving it out of respect for Freud) has a taste of the eponymous dish that has been created for him by an anthropomorphic rat and, well, I don’t want to spoil too much but he is instantly transported to the innocent days of his youth, to some halcyon summer full of discovery and joy. In this analogy I find myself the jaded critic and Richard Linklater the anthropomorphic rat. I’ve never had a lot of love for the writer/director and the film that he is most famous for, Dazed and Confused. All that film did for me is demonstrate how much fun I did not have in high school. I respect it, however, despite all the not-nostalgia it inspired in me, as it seems to do wonders for a lot of friends. So that’s great. I’m reminded of that film at the closing of Boyhood in the sense that the feeling of promise and wonder that lies at the feet of an 18 year old, that notion of immortality and invulnerability has now been inverted and I’ve watched this story unfold from the perspective of an adult; from the viewpoint of a parent, which I am not. All that potential and wonder now has a context. I’m kind of proud of Mason Jr and I’m a little invested in his wellbeing. And I’ve also become vividly aware of all the ways his flawed but well meaning parents worked to give him a good life along the way. But mostly I’ve found myself reminded of those fragmented memories of youth, those inbetween moments, the awkwardness, the brilliant terror of showing up at school with a new haircut, the sweetness of having a note passed to you by a girl, the cloying and strange affection inflicted by elder relatives. The foolish certainty of adolescence. The absurdly pretentious wisdom of a teenager. The self importance. The ego centricism. The pseudo-intellectualism. Clearly a few things I’ve yet to grow out of.
Without the immersive performances of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke grounding the film Boyhood would have felt like an exceptional art experiment. But it really is elevated and affirmed by the only two professional actors and their ability to draw authentic performance from their amateur counterparts. Ellar Coltrane never really needs to be anything other than what he is: a kid growing up and experiencing the world while the people who love him work desperately to maintain the sense of stability and safety around him. Mason Sr. is the eminently cool dad, aloof and confident, free to continue exploring his own life without the full time responsibility of parenthood. This makes him, on one hand, the levity of Boyhood. He gets to have all the fun and take the kids to the museums and have sleepovers or go to an Astros game inasmuch as an Astros game can be considered fun. But this also makes him kind of an asshole in retrospect (not the fact that he’s an Astros fan), his ex-wife is the one who effectively has no life, who works constantly to improve her children’s lives and to improve herself in order to make more money to support them. And her reward for all this work? Two divorces and an empty nest. An apartment to herself. A sense of loss.
As hard as it was to watch I appreciate that her son was deaf to her final soliloquy about the remains of her life, that he had no eloquent response. Because this is a real moment, not an episode of Seventh Heaven. And in real life it’s a very long time before all the things our parents went through come into perspective.
Boyhood has an obvious and deliberate pace dictated by each passing year of Mason Jr.’s life and the effect is stunning in its steady, unwavering persistence. The lack of title cards or obvious scene transitions is jarring in its simplicity. The years fly by and are bookmarked using diagetic music selections and topical anecdotes. It’s also ridiculously Austin, Texas throughout. There is this unmistakable sense of the place that is simultaneously liberal minded but traditionalist, weirdly iconoclastic but utterly and completely Texan through and through.
It’s a beautiful film and perfect in its imperfection. I understand why the technical brilliance of Birdman won out at the Oscars but I don’t agree that it was the best film of the year. It makes sense that the meta humor and originality of Alexander Gonzales Iñárritu’s picture took top honors but it’s not a film that affected me for long after the credits rolled. Boyhood, however, is an experience that will be shared for years and passed on by its audience. Not for its novel premise or any kind of mastery of the craft but for how profoundly lovely a story about one relatively unremarkable person can be. And how that story, told without drama or stylistic flourish, can be a reminder of how precious every day is, in spite of how mundane it may seem. All the fear and insecurity and overwrought machinations of adulthood, all the things that complicate life in the 9 to 5, they can all be traced back to a few minutes laying in the grass, staring at the sky, wondering what the heck is up there and why it’s so blue.
It’s this shared experience and the unforgiving passage of time that makes Boyhood so powerful and ironically timeless. It is unpoetic. Inelegant. No justice is meted out to the bullies or the abusers or the unaccountable. The inadequacies of life are the only consistent narrative and where this would frustrate or depress me in another story, I’m instead reminded of that other feeling, the invulnerability, the thrill of potential. The fact that although tomorrow is not guaranteed it is mine to make of what I will, having been reminded of innocent days and halcyon summers.