I expected to be impressed by director Richard Linklater latest film Boyhood. Who else but the director of the Before Trilogy, a twenty year experiment in long-term character development, would have the audacious patience to assemble a cast and film for 12 years the story of a boy and his family growing up? But I did not expect such joy. A growing smile enlarged into a full-on grin which remained on my face for film’s duration. As the film tracks the life of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family, we laugh, not just because the situations and banter are funny but because we recognize similar situations. The film is alerting us to the joy of the ordinary, the mundane special that is all around us, so easy to miss.
One would assume such a landmark film to portray an ideal American family, but instead Mason and his sister Sam, (Lorelei Linklater) live with their single mom (Patricia Arquette). Their father (perfectly cast Ethan Hawke) is out of the picture and the pain this separation has on the kids is sensitively handled from their perspective. As weekend trips with Dad are balanced with school, video games, and bike rides with friends, their mom’s progressing career and education, adopted parents, and domestic abuse enter their story. Such difficult and complicated themes are not tucked away, but neither do they become the film’s focus.
Part of Boyhood’s appeal is watching this family grow up before us, each character making decisions and changing, not just in hair styles and facial structures, but as people. Mason and his dad grow closer then we might have originally guessed, friends come and go with surprising transience, skills and interests foster, fumble, and achieve success, and daily choices turn into personal characteristics. Like the darkroom negative that Mason develops in high school, this boy is turning into a man before our very eyes.
But this film is not just about Mason. Each family member could be closely study, and I was especially fascinated by his Mom. At the beginning, she is not much too look at and, being an educated single parent, would likely never amount to much. And yet she pulls herself up out of poverty “for her kids sake,” earning several degrees, a noble pursuit that we applaud. By the time Mason is a teenager she is teaching college physiology and hosting dinner parties for students, the picture of modern success. Towards the end of the film, Mason is packing up for college and his Mom breaks into tears. Her sorrow is not in her son’s departure, as we’d come to expect from so many similar scenes in movies. Instead she grieves over her departing glory days, the fading of her youth, and the mortality of her success and achievements. “I’m getting old” she cries, “and all I have to show for it are mortgages, reminders of divorce, and a house full of clutter.” Her life’s focus has been exposed as a self-centred striving after the wind.
We see, in less then three hours, a beautiful time-lapse image of what it meant to grow up in my era. So many scenes rang true, yet I was struck by how different my boyhood was. I’m not referring to the video games I didn’t play or the alcohol and locker room dramas I didn’t experience. I’m thinking of my parents; my mum sacrificing her career for the unglamorous work of raising her offspring at home, my dad making the care of his son’s soul his priority.
But to come away from theatre boasting in my own privileged upbringing would be to completely miss the point, blind to the wonders of this film. Boyhood’s gift is its empathy, and this empathy includes an understanding of my peer’s experiences and a realization of what we have in common. This modern life and all of its complexities are here on display in a grand miniature. We are invited to leave wiser in the ways of the modern man and filled with thanksgiving for the good gifts we all share.