Boyhood (2014)



I began writing this review of Boyhood almost a month ago, but never got around to finishing it until now — half because the year-end surge of interesting DVD releases (a lot of great films don’t really make theaters in Brazil, mind you) has kept me busy, and half because it’s a tough task to write about this film in any capacity. Many, many movies and a whole month of festivities and resentments after seeing it, I still remember walking out of the theater in absolute awe, wondering how I would ever explain to my friends, or to anyone, just why they should go and see it when my unforgettable experience watching it was so connected with my own personal experiences. That’s the closest I can get to formulating a useful verdict about Boyhood, I think — it’s capable of connecting with viewers so much that it’s very hard, once you’ve seen it, to take a few steps back, objectively determine its worth as a piece of art, and make arguments for it or against it. Which then again, given its similarly affectionate response among critics and audiences in general, means it managed to fulfill one of the primary goals of artistic creation. But a film review can’t only consist of something so vague as “This is great art,” so you see why it took me so long to write all of this.

In other words: I loved Boyhood to a degree that I don’t think can be made explicit through words alone.

I would normally be wary of such hyperbole, but right now I’m more than willing to make an exception because this movie is really that good. It wasn’t just the best film I’ve seen all year; it was one of the best films I have ever seen, point-blank. Having watched it for the first time less than a month ago, I would gladly watch it again right now, were it not for the fact that I want to wait a few years before I see it anew. It is so absolutely amazing on so many levels that writing about it is, to add to my previous point, a simultaneously futile and necessary exercise; even with all the detachment in the world, it would still take me a hundred posts to really dig into its greatness, and yet I can never hope to write something truly complete about Boyhood because my perspective on it is surely going to shift over time. I suspect I’ll never not love it, though, and that’s why it’s necessary for me to write something. I am a teenager, after all. How I feel about this particular movie now may be more relevant than however else I ever feel about it.

Not that it isn’t universal, of course. It is very universal, its loose narrative progression so unconcerned with conventional plot formations that it’s literally not possible for me or anyone to provide a summary other than “the life of a young male and his family over 12 years.” I’m sure you’ve heard everything about it that has been said since it was released last summer — that it presents the highs and lows of life with immaculate sincerity, that it’s as deeply generous to its characters as you’d expect from director Richard Linklater, that it’s rich and groundbreaking enough to be called a landmark film. All of these things are true, and they’re not even getting into some of the film’s ancillary value. Boyhood is, for instance, the most intimate summation yet of the changes in American culture over the past decade, with a soundtrack that employs the likes of early Coldplay, Gnarls Barkley, Cobra Starship and Arcade Fire to mark the passage of time. (What a long way have we come from singing “Oops, I Did It Again” to annoy our younger siblings.) Its characters engage in impassioned discussions about politics, religion, and other pressing matters, and in doing so paint a historically valuable, human-sized picture of the big concerns of our turbulent days. Yet Boyhood is never really about these environmental modifications; the changes it cares for are personal, and they are what make this movie what it is.

But, like I just wrote, everything superlative that can be said about the enthralling humanity of Boyhood has been already said and re-said and countered and said again with a vengeance. I personally have no problem with adding my voice to the chorus of acclaim, but that would almost certainly feel redundant by this point, so what I will say is this: as someone who’s more-or-less in the middle of the strange curve usually chronicled by coming of age films, I thought Boyhood was one of the first films of that sort to really speak to me in a meaningful way. I don’t mean it elicits the “oh, this is so relatable” feel usually sought by “teen movies,” though it most certainly does, nor do I mean it’s filled to the brink with boldface lessons on growing up, though it occasionally offers up a few dashes of quiet wisdom (one particular line near the end has, in fact, stayed with me ever since I heard it). It spoke to me in the sense that it finally understood the tribulations of young age as opposed to just reproducing them from a distance, almost as if the scenes had been written by the titular boy himself just before they were shot. That unusual empathy, combined with Linklater’s self-evident skill as a mature storyteller, makes for the rare cinematic childhood/adolescence that feels lived rather than filmed, but at the same time considered rather than laid bare. A bad haircut, for instance, would be sitcom fodder elsewhere; here, it’s a disarmingly important dramatic moment, from which the writer/director and his wonderful lead Ellar Coltrane manage to extract more truth and heft than ten other coming of age flicks combined. It’s unusual for a relatively mainstream American movie to embrace that kind of naturalism, but if anybody was going to do it, thank god it was Richard Linklater.

This is where I have to acknowledge that of course my opinion on Boyhood is partial, because how else would I respond to this film, a film that focuses so sincerely and meaningfully on both my own demographic and the one I belonged to a few years ago, but with unbridled enthusiasm? Rest assured, however: it gets everybody right, not just the kids. In the rare occasions where it paints the adults with stronger, less natural colors — such as when a certain stepfather gets unexpectedly aggressive –, it does so in a continued effort to shape our hero Mason, Jr.’s worldview and advance his growth, and I can certainly not fault it for going that way one or two times when people act exaggeratedly and out of character in real life so often. Conversely, when it does take its time with Mason’s older influences, notably his hard-working mother and well-meaning father, the effect of watching them also grow from financially challenged young adults to the weary, altruistic variety of adults that reluctantly send their kids off to college is breathtaking, in no small part due to the brilliantly understated performances of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. They, too, unfold as people before our eyes, both in and out of the movie, as does Mason’s sister, as do his step siblings, as does his college girlfriend who appears only for a couple of scenes, as do even the somewhat peripheral stepparents. That’s all quite a feat when you stop to think that the movie is essentially one boy’s story from beginning to end.

You may have noticed, as I did just now, that, six paragraphs in, I have yet to mention the movie’s major technical innovation, the thing you remember when people tell you about it — and believe me, I haven’t been deliberately avoiding it. I hope that goes to showing that this movie is truly more than its so-called gimmick, even if I have to concede that it’s easy, even instinctive, to wonder how much of its success is attributable to the inevitable “wow” factor rather than the makers’ talent. Yes, the novelty of seeing the same actors play the same characters over a period of twelve years condensed into less than three swift hours would, by itself, provide us all with a unique cinematic experience, and I can’t say that accomplishment isn’t part of Boyhood‘s appeal. Of course it is. The lead actor all but doubles in height over the course of the movie — we have never seen anything quite like this in the history of film. That alone would make this a memorable venture even if the filmmaking itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy. And in all honesty, the story told in Boyhood also has the prior advantage of encompassing the very period of life that everybody agrees is most packed with twists and turns and dramatic changes in mind, body and soul: a film that focused on someone from, say, ages 35 to 47 might have been just as skillfully made, and would, of course, be fascinating in its own way, but it would probably not feel as epic as this one because look at how fast that effing kid is growing up. I get how those things can feel like an unfair head start — how could this movie not be striking? When it wins the Best Picture Oscar, the internet will be flooded with disparagers saying that everyone got carried away by the 12-year thing and that the movie would be nothing special without it.

For my part, I can only affirm it’s pointless to wonder whether this project would have been as winning in lesser hands, and more pointless still to try to distinguish between its concept and its workmanship — just as it was asinine last year to question Gravity‘s merit aside from the effects. The fact of the matter is that the idea behind Boyhood, to simply capture a boy growing into a man over a long time period and to do it as breathlessly up close as possible, is so good that it’s unbelievable nobody has tried it before, yet the execution of that exquisite concept is so accomplished that it actually makes us glad nobody has tried it but the people who did. Factor in the amount of things outside of anyone’s control that could have gone wrong in that risky 12-year production, and wow, this movie is a fucking miracle. I’m grateful to live in a world where it exists and I get to watch it, empathize with the people in it, be tenderly reminded of the deceptive simplicity of childhood and the overwhelming possibility of early adolescence, realize my sixteen-year-old self is still a long way from self-awareness, and somehow feel as though I myself have lived for twelve years in Texas as something more than a spectator. Boyhood is a work of art that taps into the ceaseless enchantment of life itself, and that’s why it’s going to be on our minds and in our hearts for a very, very long time.