When I view a piece of art sometimes I have to separate the story of a piece from how I feel about the piece itself. Not necessarily because my views on the two contradict, but because it becomes difficult to really grasp how much of my experience is coming from each aspect. With Boyhood, I have a hard time thinking about the 3 hour long movie I saw and separating it from what I know about what into making the film but, maybe, that’s the point.
Directory Richard Linklater has created a kind of moving time capsule within Boyhood. The movie was made over the course of 12 years, a remarkably different process from other movies. Linklater let the actors in the film age naturally and used short periods of filming each year as well as a fluid writing and editing process in order to capture snapshots of the characters inside of different moments in time within the real world. The aging of the actors alone is a remarkable thing to watch on screen. When actors are aged with movie magic they usually still resemble themselves just with more wrinkles or decay. However, in this movie we see that not only do people age, they change as they age. We get to watch Ethan Hawke age from Jake Hoyt (Training Day) to James Sandin (The Purge), Patricia Arquette transitions from Lila Jute (Human Nature) to Sally Wheet (Boardwalk Empire), and Ellar Coltrane grow from a little boy into a young man as Mason.
Along with the actors/characters, the world ages too. Different people will likely notice different things from scene to scene that are important to them. The fashion, technology, TV shows and social references are all taken organically out of the time period that they were filmed in. It’s really fascinating to see the things that they chose to focus on years ago and what they’re relevance is now. A good example of that is a scene, shot 6 years before the film’s release, where the father and son are talking about the possibility of another Star Wars movie being made. They couldn’t have known when that scene was being shot that the movie would be released when a new Star Wars film was actually being shot. Those kinds of moments are a bit of a surreal experience that it’s hard to put into words. Artists have done similar kinds of work in different mediums and this movie really does feel like a piece of art that just happens to take the form of a movie.
When I remove my admiration for the process behind creating this movie and what that adds to the experience of the movie, I have to admit that I did have some problems with the film. Throughout the movie the characters continue to age without interruption. However, the film simply drops in at different moments of the characters lives. I guess that should be expected because the film would be 12 years long otherwise? This does impact the storytelling because almost everything is encapsulated within tiny story arcs in the movie. In some cases that’s alright but in other cases it left me with a feeling of a lack of closure. There were several times where an arc ended on a very dramatic moment or in an abrupt way and immediately jumped ahead several months. So, for the characters, they had time to move on and move past the events we’ve just seen but, as an audience member, I was still wondering, “wait, what happened with that?”
The other thing that I was thrown off by is that this movie is put together more as a being a voyeur into a family as opposed to watching a movie with characters. Because of this, I was expecting to see some stereotypical movie moments that just don’t happen. For instance, in a movie, when you see a kid go off to an abandoned house with some strange older kids, you expect something terrible to happen to him. In real life, people do that kind of thing all the time and they’re fine. When set-ups like that happen in the movie, they follow more of what happens in real life than they do in regular movie life. In some ways this is really cool because it causes the viewer to add tension to a scene without the film having to do anything. On the other hand, it does kind of feel disappointing when things end uneventfully. Similarly, when the big dramatic moments of the movie hit, they hit fast and hard. There’s very little foreshadowing or hinting that something’s going to go wrong. Instead, things just kind of happen.That would really be the way I’d describe the whole movie’s plot: “things just kind of happen”. In some ways that makes the movie feel more authentic, but it also makes the movie feel slow and dry at times. Even the ending of the movie feels anti-climactic because the movie really just kind of stops. They try to put a little bit of a bow on it but it’s hard to really feel like it’s a conclusion since it ends at the beginning of a new phase of the main character’s life.
Speaking of the main character, something that I was kind of thrown by was how watching the he and the other characters grow made me react to them. As the youngest person, Mason grows the most throughout the movie. You can see the different snapshots of him as he ages in the image at the top of this post. There were some times where I literally didn’t recognize him on screen when he jumped from one age to another. There were also times where I realized that I didn’t really like the kind of person that he was becoming. I realized that these are atypical reactions to the lead of a movie, usually you know what you’re getting out of your lead early in the movie. In the case of Mason, I was never really sure who he was going to be at the beginning of each different moment in time. It’s less like watching a child grow and more like going to visit a distant relative. You know them but you aren’t really sure what they’ve become since you last saw them.
So, I have mixed feelings about different parts of the movie. Some arcs were definitely more interesting to me than others but that’s to be expected. Overall, no matter how I felt about the actual story I would’ve still recommended that people go watch this movie. It’s just such a unique thing to have taken so much time to craft something and to really show the passage of time in an authentic way. With art, there are times you go to enjoy something and times that you go to experience something. This movie, is something that should be experienced.