The funny thing about children is that they are always watching. They are always observing the world around them, taking it all in. The scary thing about children is wondering what they are absorbing. The smallest conversations, actions, facial expressions, etc. can transform a moment for a kid, and change the way they see the world. This is something that is depicted with terrifying reality in Richard Linklater’s sociology-experiment-of-a-movie, “Boyhood.”
For those who don’t know, the gimmick behind “Boyhood” is that it was filmed over the span of 12 years with the main cast all aging in real time. We join young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at the age of five staring into the sky wondering, dreaming of what, we can only guess. From there we watch as new characters enter and leave his life like a revolving door all while he looks on with his deep blue eyes that are washing over everything in his environment, consuming all of the sights, sounds, and movements his world has to offer.
Gimmicks can lead filmmakers down some treacherous roads, for examples see the onslaught of point-of-view films in the wake of “The Blair Witch Project” or the decreasing interest in M. Night Shyamalan movies as audiences became accustomed to surprise twists. However, this year we saw some quirky gimmicks used brilliantly (see “Birdman’s” one-shot). What makes “Boyhood” so effective is that we are seeing real people really moving through time, the movie expresses a sense of reality that the best make-up artists in the business can’t provide.
As an audience when we are watching biographical movies we are trained to expect tragedy. You expect people to experience life-changing accidents, heart-breaking deaths, or at least the embarrassment of a parent walking in on something no parent wants to see. Linklater builds these suspenseful moments again and again in “Boyhood,” but with no expected pay off. We have seen story after story of people formed by tragedy, but the truth is that lots of people move through life being formed by very normal experiences: the first time you get a note from a girl in class, your first beer, the first time you shoot a gun, the first ride in your dad’s classic GTO. This again, adds to the reality of the movie.
This may sound mundane and uninteresting but the draw of “Boyhood” is that we experience this story with the wide-eyed wonder of Mason. We are interested in the characters in his life because he is. Mason, as most kids do, says anything and asks everything. The benefit is that we get to see how people react to being asked curious, blunt questions. What this creates are two versions, the audiences’ and Mason’s.
The audience may experience Patricia Arquette’s mom as a strong woman who has survived incredible pain to work through school and become a master’s level psychology professor. Mason barely knows what she teaches or does. Every move she makes is her trying as hard as she can to give her kids a better life. Rarely does Mason or his sister understand why they have to move or why mom is crying. The heartbreaking reality of how little we appreciate our parents.
Mom is contrasted by Mason Sr. played by Ethan Hawke. Raising the kids is easier for him. He gets to swoop in and do fun things with them. He gets to be overly romantic and idealistic. It’s no wonder that by the end of the film, Mason is a spitting image (down to the wrinkled button-up T and scraggly goatee) of his father.
The examples Mason gets are of very real people who are wandering through life without a clear sense of whether or not they are doing things right. They get excited, they move, they fail, they cry, they do it all again. Mason experiences it all and the result is the latter parts of the film being filled with him asking what life is really all about. No one has given him an answer and you can believe he’s been looking for it.
Mason’s penchant for wonder and observation leads him to photography which symbolically fits the entire scope of the film. “Boyhood” is about the moments that make up life. Linklater provides these moments in many ways: fashion, hair styles, music of the time. Mason loves capturing those moments, freezing them, examining them. There are very few overly dramatic or intense scenes, but “Boyhood” is engaging and beautiful because it is life displayed in a way movies rarely can capture and, by the end, it may have you asking what your life is really all about.