Cinema makes magic out of time. It’s only the lag between eyes and brain that makes a succession of still image frames appear to move in a lifelike way. And as an artform, cinema has always toyed with how much or how little to mimic life. At one end of the spectrum, documentaries claim to depict the world as it ‘really is’; at the other, special effects-driven fantasies transcend the everyday.
Richard Linklater’s new drama Boyhood is a magical viewing experience. Like the best stage illusions, it’s masterfully performed and designed to fill its audiences with awe and delight. Because it was filmed gradually, over a period of twelve years, Boyhood authentically represents the passage of time in a way other films can only simulate. We see children grow up before our eyes as their parents age; yet it happens gradually enough to seem completely seamless.
We know exactly how it was done: Linklater and his core cast filmed in four-day stints roughly once a year from 2002 to 2013, writing the story as they went along. But the real magic—the prestige—is that Boyhood’s immersive vision of everyday life doesn’t merely capture a zeitgeist; it also provokes audiences to consider their own personal histories. In this solipsistic way—rather than through such technological trickery as 3D or Smell-O-Vision—Boyhood brings cinema tantalisingly close to lived experience.
The elasticity of perception
To convey the passage of time onscreen requires metaphoric devices. The long take. The cut. The dissolve. The montage. The flashback or flash-forward. Adjusting the film speed through slow motion or time-lapse.
Boyhood doesn’t fetishise time, but simply lets it elapse naturalistically, with no narrative throughway. It alights upon its characters’ lives incidentally, in banal moments at work, at home, at school, while they’re socialising or driving somewhere. (There’s a lot of space to navigate in Texas.) It makes sense only because it mirrors the linear way we perceive time; and much as our lives come to seem teleological in retrospect, we only sense what Boyhood ‘means’ by considering how what happened then led to this, which led to this.
The film runs for nearly three hours, but it doesn’t feel long. I was completely absorbed, content just to hang out with the titular boy Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his estranged parents Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke), and his sassy elder sister Samantha (the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater). They are thoroughly ordinary, torn between competing desires for self-determination and security, and buffeted by financial and interpersonal pressures.
Mason is a dreamy kid, constantly being chided for slacking and coasting—and I feel that’s deliberate. Cinema has too many ambitious kids: anxious or impatient, yearning for heroism. But Mason’s dreaminess is what lulls audiences into considering the pace and consequence of daily existence. It’s also important, I feel, that his passion—and potentially his career—is photography. Mason is an observer and captor of moments.
Unlike his fellow Texan Terrence Malick, whose 2011 film The Tree of Life this superficially resembles, Linklater is in no hurry to attribute mystic significance to what we see. Not for him Malick’s Romantic world of intense, sublime feeling. Instead, Boyhood reflects the way we perceive moments as significant, both as they happen and retrospectively.
Haven’t you had a conversation at a party with someone who really seems to get you, as Mason does here? Haven’t you felt the impotent rage of being only a kid, forced to submit to the arbitrary decisions of adults? Haven’t you ever felt your whole life could hinge on a single decision? Hasn’t it ever struck you that you were content? And what about those unsettling revelations that your parents have inner lives; that they are more than just your mum and dad?
Boyhood Island, the third of six volumes in Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle, also seeks to capture the subjective elasticity of time. ‘We were in mid-childhood and time was suspended there,’ Knausgaard writes. ‘That is, the moments raced along at breakneck speed while the days that contained them passed almost unnoticed.’
Boyhood’s emotional climax comes as Mason is packing to leave for college and his mother bursts into tears, shocked by how quickly time has passed. We can share Olivia’s grief because we also know the elasticity of perception… but Mason’s boyhood really has lasted only a few hours.
Over Linklater’s string of quotidian vignettes, time washes through Boyhood in broad, sometimes startling ways. When we first see Hawke (now aged 43) and Arquette (now 46), they look shockingly young and fresh-faced in a way that simply can’t be achieved through Benjamin Button-esque makeup and CGI jiggery-pokery. And it’s astonishing how strongly Coltrane grows to resemble his onscreen parents. How could Linklater possibly have anticipated this?
It’s tempting to marvel at such logistical matters: the project’s patient scope, its casting serendipities, and the wonderful, affecting, multifaceted performances that these actors were secretly committing to film while also working on other projects. But that’s like trying to learn the secret of a magic trick.
It’s much more powerful simply to let yourself be moved.
Memory versus artefact
Boyhood has been compared to the time-lapse documentary tradition of Michael Apted’s Up Series, and to François Truffaut’s cycle of five films that follow his alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), over twenty years. (The first two of these are screening in this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival as part of a Léaud retrospective.)
Our memories are malleable and unreliable, but time-lapse cinema sketches a clear trajectory of change over time. Each ‘episode’ offers itself as a historical artefact against which to measure what came before and what followed afterwards, thus rendering the passage of time indisputably substantial.
Time-lapse films differ from period films, which consciously ‘look back’ from a contemporary viewpoint, deliberately using production and costume design, musical soundtrack and hair and makeup to underline the quaintness of the past. By contrast, the mise-en-scène of films set ‘now’ tends to recede into the background. Old films only look ‘old’ to us because their notion of the ‘present’ has been superseded.
But because Boyhood was filmed in twelve different ‘presents’, it’s both a period piece and a time capsule. Many of the most zeitgeisty cultural motifs and material detritus of the past twelve years appear here: from the Wii to Obama, and from Britney Spears to Daft Punk. These things were part of everyday life as Linklater was writing the film. But because I was viewing them as ‘the past’ from my 2014 perspective of ‘the present’, at times these artefacts felt like the self-conscious, clunky window-dressing of a period film.
I was reminded of the critical way I’ve assessed other period films set in the recent past—including Love and Other Drugs (2010), One Day (2011), The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012), The To Do List (2013) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)—for their ‘accuracy’. But not archival accuracy: emotional accuracy. As someone who lived through this time, I can’t help judging the fashions, the technology, and the musical cues on how strongly they evoke my own memories.
In aspiring to encapsulate one boy’s life as an historical artefact, Boyhood has an amiable but relentless forward momentum. Linklater resists the temptation to use his archival footage as flashbacks, and his characters frequently move on, abandoning friends and family who are never seen or even discussed onscreen again.
Ellar Coltrane found the experience of watching the finished film very strange: ‘To see things that I don’t entirely remember doing. To see this little person that I don’t really remember being. But it’s incredible.’
Ethan Hawke has watched the film with his children: ‘For them, the dad in the movie is actually their dad. Everybody relates to this movie somehow, but for them, there are things they said to me that made it into the movie. … It’s surreal to them … It was like a portrait of their lives.’
In Boyhood Island, Knausgaard writes of the absolute impossibility of using the word ‘me’ to describe the infant his parents photographed—not merely because he has no memories of his own infancy, but also because the remembered self actually seems like another person.
Even photographs—Mason’s passion, and also our artefacts of having lived—offer no insight into thoughts and feelings, Knausgaard argues. ‘They are voids; the only meaning that can be derived from them is that which time has added.’ Nonetheless, for Knausgaard the way we imbue images with ‘intimate history’ is the whole point: ‘Meaningful, meaningless, meaningful, meaningless, this is the wave that washes through our lives and creates its inherent tension.’
And what about girlhood?
Reading ‘Boyhood Island’ for an essay I’m writing on 'Boyhood’ & feeling sad cos I never had a boyhood :-(((( whyyy society— Mel Campbell (@incrediblemelk) July 13, 2014
Boyhood can access the atavistic ways we think about our lives because it so closely mimics the ways we construct our memories. And it’s tempting for critics to offer rave reviews through the prism of their own life experiences.
I want to single out Drew McWeeny’s review at HitFix, which was less about the film than his own raw emotions, which he described at such great length that I felt embarrassed for him and feared for his mental health. However, HitFix commenters almost univocally praised McWeeny for the bravery and sensitivity of his writing.
@ccpopculture I’ve had to ban myself from reading BOYHOOD reviews because I keep screaming “I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR WHITE BOY PAIN!” at them— Hayley Centimetres (@hayley_sass) July 22, 2014
Knausgaard, too, has received widespread acclaim for his fascination with the quotidian self. However, Katie Roiphe has argued that ‘what in a male writer appears as courage or innovation or literary heroics would be read, in a woman, even by the liberal, enlightened, and literary, as hubris or worse.’ My Struggle ‘would appear, if a woman wrote it, both banal and egoistic … drab, familiar, whiny’.
Would Ricki Linklater’s film Girlhood and its protagonist Macie have received such a rapturous reception? I suspect not. Our patriarchal culture treats men’s everyday experiences as universal and meaningful, while women’s are domestic and frivolous.
But we can still refuse to luxuriate solipsistically in the magic of Boyhood. It has much to say about class and the liberal/conservative political divide, and the divergent trajectories of Mason’s parents’ lives are starkly circumscribed by gender. Olivia and Mason Senior clearly married youthfully and recklessly. But Olivia’s stuck being the responsible custodial parent, while Mason Senior gets to find himself in Alaska, and then return home to be Fun Dad with his muscle car, mixtapes, and camping trips, still living in a share house and writing crappy guitar songs.
Patricia Arquette’s acting has a magnetic opacity of the sort that I’ve associated elsewhere with Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst. As Allison DuBois in Medium—a show I loved, and which also pleated the fabric of everyday life—her stillness and reserve read as otherworldly.
Here, as Olivia, it hides a yearning for self-determination that her children—and we, the quiet observers—only occasionally glimpse. ‘I was somebody’s daughter, and now I’m somebody’s fucking mother,’ she says bitterly.
I don’t think it’s incidental that Olivia returns to study and becomes a psychology academic. She wants to understand human behaviour. Yet her biggest lesson is not to trust in patriarchal values for her family’s safety and security. For romantic partners, she chooses men who seem to be the responsible antitheses of flaky Mason Senior; but they turn out to be scary disciplinarians with hair-trigger tempers.
Mason’s childhood is precarious as his mother juggles work and study and flees abuse. As a teenager he drives an old, rusted pickup truck to his part-time job at a fast-food restaurant (recalling Linklater’s 2006 film Fast Food Nation) where he’s yelled at in the kitchen for eating customers’ expensive leftovers.
Meanwhile, Mason Senior knuckles down. He becomes an actuary, swaps his GTO for a minivan, and grows an awful moustache. He marries a woman from a conservative ‘God ‘n’ Guns’ Texas family and starts a new family. With touches of the same gentle humour he displayed in Bernie (2011), Linklater represents Mason Senior’s embrace of American patriarchy as a dorky capitulation.
Invited to Olivia’s house for Mason’s high-school graduation party, he can’t help joking: ‘I’ve finally turned into the boring, castrated guy she always wanted me to be.’ This is unfair to Olivia, who only wanted a responsible guy. But it’s also a revelation that Mason Senior finds his stolid adult life emasculating.
Mason has learned resilience and self-reliance from his mother, and playfulness and nonchalance from his father. Boyhood avoids cheap epiphanies, but it does invite us to consider what our own experiences have taught us. We are all moulded by everyday life; but the magic trick is that we can still choose how we remember it.
Boyhood screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday 2 August and Wednesday 6 August. It will be in general release from Thursday 4 September.
Mel Campbell is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, cultural critic, and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit.