With the Boyhood hype sweeping the young-adult world, Richard Linklater has once again shown, with perhaps his most innovative idea yet, how his alternative ideas can appeal to a wide audience. The film’s trailer already suggests that film history has been made. And who could deny it: watching a child grow up in a mere 2.5 hour time period is an unbelievably haunting experience. Though brilliant, it is a tough idea to realize. Linklater, a director known for making films that take place in under 24 hours, has taken on the task of condensing 12 years into a single film. In all that time, which moments do you show? With the Before Trilogy already under his belt, which spanned 18 years, it isn’t surprising that this concept has come from the same director. What, exactly, he has chosen to show, on the other hand, is quite unexpected.
In the past two-and-a-half decades, Linklater has proven extremely versatile. An indie director who emerged in the early 90s, he has since branched out into mainstream comedy with School of Rock (2003) and blurred the boundaries between live action and animation with his ‘rotoscope movies’ Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). After many stylistic deviations, his two most recent features seem in many ways a return to form. Like Linklater’s earlier work, Boyhood is grounded in a more naturalistic setting and focuses on everyday life. It also revisits his old fascination with youth culture. The narrative doesn’t follow any particular structure besides perhaps the structure of a young boy’s life. The acting is strong overall, even from the non-actors, and it is hard to believe that the dialogues weren’t all improvised. Occasionally Linklater administers his iconic long uninterrupted takes, letting us choose who to look at in the frame. Here the camera doesn’t steer our attention in any particular direction, but simply lets us observe people, like animals in their natural habitat.
Funnily enough, Linklater’s most everyday settings often turn out to be the most romantic. The situations he sketches tend to be slightly larger-than-life. In Boyhood, for instance, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) must endure not only one, but two angry alcoholic stepfathers. However, what really makes these films so gripping is how well Linklater manages to get into his characters’ heads. Typically they lack a sense of direction. In some cases, such as in his breakthrough film Slacker (1991), this is presented as something positive. As Linklater put it himself, the characters in Slacker “are rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them”. In other cases this lack of direction isn’t a choice, but rather a result of an existential crisis. A good example is the Before Trilogy, which follows two individuals whose lives change forever after spontaneously spending a single night together. They spend a lot of their time reminiscing about whether their future together could ever be as perfect as the brief encounter they had when they were young. They live in a mixture of their nostalgias and their somewhat unrealistic dreams for the future, unable or unwilling to live in the present. Linklater is a master at showing us how painfully romantic real life situations can be.
So where does Boyhood fit in? It definitely seemed marketed as a romanticization of everyday life, similar to the Before films, but Boyhood doesn’t actually overload us with the nostalgia of being young. Neither is Mason another one of Linklater’s directionless characters. As he grows up he is quite certain about what he wants to do later in life, and he never seems to dwell too much on his past. Inevitably the film must skip over much of his life, and as a consequence we don’t gain access to many of his inner struggles. He is in fact quite mysterious. We don’t witness him being particularly sad, happy, angry, or insecure. We don’t witness his first kiss and we don’t really get to know his closest friends. Mason doesn’t seem to be dealing with the same struggles as Jesse and Celine in the Before films.
Does this mean, while returning to a more familiar style, Linklater is breaking his tradition of directionless characters? It might seem so, but what Mason lacks in aimlessness is in fact made up by his (divorced) parents who each have their own individual struggles. Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) attempts to make a career as a teacher to provide for her children, while at the same time seeking out a new romantic partner. Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) in turn goes through his own coming-of-age story as he learns that he is perhaps not cut out to be the rock star he thought he could be. One of the most memorable moments is near the end of the film, when Mason’s mother unexpectedly bursts into tears as he’s packing his bags to go off to university. She confesses that she feels as if her life is over now that both her children are leaving. “I just thought there would be more,” she says. As a part of an audience who just witnessed his whole adolescence in roughly 2 hours’ time, I realized that I felt the same way.
It would seem that Mason’s mother is that directionless character of the film: a character fighting to provide a better future for her children and for herself. Although you could say that she does accomplish her goal, the film leaves her just as lost as at the start of the film—dwelling on memories of her children and fearing her own future. She is actually easier to identify with than with her son, and in a way we see Mason through her eyes. As a mother she is left out of many of her son’s inner thoughts in the same way we are. Ultimately the film isn’t so much about growing up as much as it is about watching someone grow up. Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been Parenthood.