Boyhood is about nothing but passing time.
A friend thought (correctly) nothing interesting happens to the lead boy, Mason, as he grows up. I suspect that’s what director Richard Linklater wanted, filming for a week every summer over twelve years. Boyhood adds together the mundane fragments of our memories when they actually happened. This is how Ellar Coltrane, playing Mason, actually looked every awkward year. The YouTube videos and Harry Potter midnight parties took place more or less in real time. For me, who overlaps in some ways (and many ways not) with Mason’s southern white suburban adolescence, there is definitely resonance. Sitting separate from the high school party, feeling pressure from your peers to boast about sexual experience no one has yet. Wondering if you’re exceptional.
For a director indebted to conversation—like in the Before Sunrise trilogy—nobody really talks, least of all Mason. He’s always passive, even becoming a photographer in high school, recording other people like Linklater does. There are times when Mason skips his curfew, shrugs off authority, paints his fingernails. But he’s not a radical kid. He never profoundly changes his worldview, never questions his sexuality. He doesn’t confront his dad about why he wasn’t there for him (Ethan Hawke, who hasn’t aged much at all).
Patricia Arquette’s mom stuck with me. This is her story, too. When she started filming in her early thirties, Arquette was a hot commodity in Hollywood; by the end, she’s 45, a woman who recently wrapped her TV show Medium and is seeking film roles again. It’s refreshing to watch her age so quickly in front of us. She’s harsh at first in Mason and his sister’s eyes, strict to them and combative with their dad. She becomes a more lenient, more caring mom and skilled professor, but she’s still attracted to self-destructive men. In her powerful last scene, she breaks down recalling everything we’ve just seen from her vantage point: a series of failed marriages, a checklist of her kids’ milestones. I don’t remember her name; to Mason, she’s Mom. Now that she has to reinvent her sense of self outside her kids, she has no idea what to work toward.
I was reminded of The Tree of Life and Moonrise Kingdom during parts of Boyhood. Linklater is a more practical filmmaker than Terrence Malick or Wes Anderson; he’s not especially whimsical or clever. Up to Mason’s high school days, the movie feels gently pieced together, as if they weren’t sure what they had. The last scenes, as Mason heads to college, suddenly impart lessons and feel too on-the-nose. Boyhood isn’t perfect, but it lets us wonder. Do our lives and experiences have any greater meaning, or cohesion? What do we really see when we look back on a life?
For Your Consideration: Best Picture; Best Director (Richard Linklater); Patricia Arquette.