Life in Motion
For his fifteenth birthday, Mason (Ellar Coltrane, the star of Boyhood) receives a mixtape of songs sung by members of the Beatles after the band separated in 1970. His dad (Ethan Hawke), who compiled the tracks, explains that although the songs are individually lacking, they are elevated by one another when played in tandem. After a touching speech in which he raves about how the singers’ individual qualities dovetail with one another, the dad playfully adds, “I’ve put the band back together for ya.”
Switch the father for Richard Linklater, the mixtape for film, and the songs for the myriad moments that mark life’s passage – a Harry Potter convention, an alcoholic stepfather’s violent outburst, an afternoon cloud-gazing from the school lawn — and you’d have a pretty accurate image of Boyhood. The story of the film’s making is astonishing – Linklater’s cast and crew met for a couple weeks each summer for 12 years, allowing the characters’ physical growth to keep in step with that of the actors’ – but the final product is more astonishing still because it lets us witness the full 12-year haul in just two-and-a-half hours. The movie emerges not only a magnificent tribute to life but an ode to cinema, whose uniquely time-based ontology allows the medium to preserve past actions and events as they happened. Boyhood exploits this fact by depicting a series of sequences that are each taken from a different year in Mason/Coltrane’s childhood. When these sequences are edited together, the juxtaposition creates an unparalleled phenomenon that, like the mixtape, elevates each individual, musical moment by placing it in its proper context, in this case the span of Mason’s growth from a six-year-old to a college freshman. We can practically hear Linklater, laid-back and casually pleased with the results of his epic project, chuckling, “I’ve put life together for ya.”
In a 2013 interview, Hawke equated Boyhood to time lapse photography, an invaluable comparison because it illustrates why so much of the movie’s power depends on the nature of cinema. Consider how, although a National Geographic photographer may spend half a day snapping thousands of pictures at the sky, it only takes us twenty seconds to watch the results: a video of the sun arcing above the horizon on fast forward, the product of those thousands of pictures played back-to-back. We experience the sun rising and setting everyday, but when viewed in this different way, the phenomenon takes on new meaning. We know that each of those pictures were individually taken and by themselves depict the kind of scene we encounter all the time, but when strung together and sped up, our mundane experience is given new life. The familiarity of the images beckons to us, and yet we are distanced by the impossible temporality of their presentation. Such is the effect of Boyhood, albeit on a more profound scale. The movie strings together not photographs (though in a way it does, because each shot of film is composed of a series of frames) but moments in life, captured in real-time for us by Linklater and crew. True the story is fictional, but it navigates life stages that many of us have experienced to some capacity, and according to Linklater, events that were happening in the actors’ lives at the time of shooting were often written into the script last minute.
Watching the film is a transcendent experience. We are hit by personal nostalgia for the bits we relate to; vicarious nostalgia for the events we know of secondhand, whether from friends or family; and a collective nostalgia for aspects of American life we each experienced differently but nonetheless recognize to be culturally significant. On this last point, the movie delves into the rhythms of Austin’s renowned art/music scene and pays tribute to the pop/indie hits of the past decade. It weaves in conversations on the presidential elections as well as mention of the Iraq War. The characters’ politically charged discussions never supersede Boyhood’s goal of observing one family’s private life unfold, but they nonetheless contextualize the movie in the happenings of the larger, public world. The film’s occasional, subtle references to national/international issues makes Boyhood a wonderful bit of people’s history that considers the 21st century milieu from the ground up, containing a wealth of humanity and, refreshingly, no discernible political agenda of its own.
At the same time, the film also invites a clinical fascination. Stuck in the reality of our day-to-day lives, we often miss the big picture, the trends, the patterns of growth that define our lives and the human race in general. But when we are invited to reexamine these same routine details in the context of cinema, which jumps through time and allows us to see events side-by-side in a way not available to us from within our own lives, we gain a macro-level view of things. We see how a childhood incident informs a person’s teenage years. We realize how courageous someone must have been to keep fighting even despite past hardship, and how some people really don’t change that much at all. This gift of perspective is one of the defining strengths of cinema. Movies have the capacity to show us new realities within the reality we think we know, recasting our everyday struggles in a new light. Films like Babel, Magnolia, and The Terrorizers embody this concept by defying the spatial limitations of our physical existence through presenting multiple stories within the same narrative time frame. Boyhood, on the other hand, maintains our linear experience of time but defies its pacing, easily joining the ranks of those other films by illuminating reality in a way that only cinema can.
Returning to the sunrise analogy, we find that the photographer’s job is a tricky one. For although the sun will always rise and set, one cannot control whether the sky will be clear, overcast, or stormy. The success of the final, time lapse film depends as much if not more on nature’s whims than the guiding hand of the artist. Linklater faced a similar challenge with Boyhood. He has revealed in interviews that casting the character of Mason was a daunting task. Of course it was. How does one find an actor to fit a role not only for a couple years but for twelve? And not a professional star but a child actor on the cusp of the most dramatic physical and emotional changes of his entire life? Regardless how hard a director might try to stick to a pre-designed screenplay, such a long-term project would inevitably force him to surrender his movie to circumstances beyond his control. It would require that he be less of a director in the traditional sense of the word and more of an observer who is just as curious as anyone over what will happen next. That Linklater did just that doesn’t make him any less of a filmmaker but rather increases his status as an artist, one who had a vision and understood what had to be done for it to be realized. He knew that, for Boyhood to succeed, it couldn’t have been mediated by the presence of an auteur figure. Its story had to form through the sacred relationship between life and the movie camera, guided only barely by the gently fictional narrative. For him to relinquish the reins and give in to the film’s subject demonstrates a profound faith in life’s ability to present a story worth telling and cinema’s ability to tell it. Boyhood tells that story, and it makes believers of all of us.