By Kyle Lucia Wu
Boyhood is the extraordinary film written and directed by Richard Linklater that was shot using the same actors over a series of twelve years. Some version of the previous sentence has been buzzing around everywhere for weeks, the only inconsistency whether the adjective is ‘extraordinary’ or ‘incredible’ or ‘really fucking good.’ I never heard any description of the plot past what is implied in the one-word title, and yet, I couldn’t wait to return to Brooklyn so I could go see it at Nitehawk.
We begin with Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, staring at the clouds at age six, and end with him off at college at eighteen. The realism in Boyhood is almost overwhelming, and the attachment to the characters unavoidable. What Linklater has done with his decision to film the same actors over a stretch of a dozen years is remove that suspension of disbelief that any movie portraying a stretch of time has – that the tiny toddler in the flashback is actually the grown man with a beard in the present. Boyhood has no such illusion. We see the small boy with large eyes and a mouth that easily pouts, turn into an adolescent with hair that flops over his eyes, into a real teenager with an earring and angst. We see his sister, bratty and outspoken from the start, morph into a teenager who dyes her hair badly, into a college student with a boyfriend and an apartment in Austin. We recognize those impulsive hairstyles and bad boyfriends and arguments in the car. It’s not contrived and it’s not extraordinary – it’s just real. As we see the characters age, grow taller, gain weight – it’s hard to remember that they aren’t real people we’re watching. It’s easier to remember Ethan Hawke the actor and Patricia Arquette the actress are playing a role in front of us, but the two children? It’s hard not to be invested in their lives, the way when you meet someone you knew as a toddler you’re always amazed when they’re turned into a teen, as if this simple passage of time doesn’t occur to everyone.
By visually seeing these kids grow up, when bad fate and drunken anger befalls them, I feel shock and pain as if they were children that I know, something difficult to achieve onscreen. It’s hard to make an audience feel anything today, especially when its made out of the fabric of the everyday – we’re so overexposed to what was previously taboo that things like violence or sex barely make us flinch. Violence to a movie character is something we see all the time. Violence to someone we know in real life is an entirely different category. And in Boyhood, Linklater has managed to blur the distinction.
It would be reductive to say there is no plot in Boyhood – there is tons of plot. But it’s failed relationships, single parents, troubles of adolescence – things that make up all of our lives. It’s recognizable and yet Linklater has made it more explosive than a highway chase. I can’t remember a fiery convertible jammed into a highway divider that ever made me feel as shocked as a certain fight at the dinner table in Boyhood, where my mouth was open and knees hugged to my chest in the theater. As the mainstream movies that make money keep going further toward car crashes and aliens, I think those who love film burrow more into the ordinary, eager to show what is hiding behind the folds of everyday life. Mason and Samantha are just children when we meet them, putting rocks into pencil sharpeners, memorizing dance moves to Baby One More Time. The cultural cues that lamppost the passing of time is an extremely clever move, bookmarking important milestones of years past that almost all contemporary audiences will recognize. It adds to the feeling that these are real people, people we knew – they waited in line for the new Harry Potter and couldn’t wait to see Dark Knight when it came out, the same way we remember ourselves or our kids or our cousins doing. It’s all so familiar.