It’s easy to reduce Boyhood to its making-of story at the expense of the finished product. Director Richard Linklater has shepherded ambitious projects before – his Before trilogy, with three films each separated by nine years detailing the same distance in the lives’ of a couple, comes to mind. But his Before trilogy treats the past and present as a dialectic, with each individual film very notably focused on the present state of a relationship and the gap between the films emphasizing the past. Boyhood, meanwhile, flips the script as a film very much devoted to the melding of the past and the present, rather than the difference between the two – Linklater treats the passage of time as a fluid construct with the moments of “present-ness”, and indeed our conception of present, tied fundamentally to our memories of the past.
Which brings us back to the film’s making – it is easy, too easy, in writing about Boyhood to emphasize Boyhood’s production, which had Linklater and the cast come together for a few weeks once a year over twelve years to film new scenes in this film’s chronology of the life of a boy growing up. Of course, at some level, the process of the film’s making is irrelevant in the final feature; if Boyhood was made in one year, it would still be a film worthy of consideration. But Boyhood, as it exists, could not have been made in one year.
For the film is very much one with its making-of story – thematically, it is very much the specific product of its production, with the director and actors having to recreate the style and characters of the previous year while also realizing the distance of the past within the film. The members of the cast and crew did not have the privilege of moving away from the characters for years, and the way they had to bleed in and out of character over the course of twelve years – focusing on half-remembered, half-changed details about their work from the prior year – mimics the film’s tapestry of memories seeking to push themselves to the forefront of the human mind. It is the great beauty of Boyhood that it not only justifies its production schedule, but that it requires it. In doing so, it not only works as an individual entity, but it forces us to rethink our understanding of film as an object of memory, as a transitive entity that is either “being made” or “been made”. It forces us to realize how film adapts over time, how it grows and festers in the mind, and how, despite whatever it can help us remember, it too can forget, and it too can struggle with the passage of memory.
To this extent, the film’s structure, its form, is resolutely impressionistic, aiming less for a full realization of its characters than a collection of moments that recall the fleeting passage of time. We only enter into the minds of these characters, especially those who aren’t main character Mason (Ellar Coltrane), through his perspective, and through that loss of time. We can’t really know them because he can’t know everything about them, and we’re instead greeted with mere glimpses. Or memories. The film’s time lapse is intentionally left formally unstated (Mason’s hair is usually the first indicator), so we’re made to unlock and leave these character’s lives through naturalistic moments that intentionally come and go, rather than stay. We’re always in a state of motion, always aware of the transitive state of the mind being swept along on the film’s undeniable propulsion, even when the film is at its most thoroughly slow-going and lackadaisical.
Performance plays perhaps the most significant role in the film. The actors not only had to recapture the essence of a character over their physical lives’ time-spans, but they had to move the characters along through the characters’ lifespans as well. The standout is Patricia Arquette as Mason’s mother Olivia, who stunningly conveys distance and confusion amidst the camera’s focus on her changing, and non-changing, joys and sorrows. Ethan Hawke has as difficult a task, largely due to playing Mason’s never-there father Mason Sr (many of the years leave him out completely). He nails both the transitive, fun-loving nature of the character as well as the desperate desire to be loved and belong underlying his off-the-cuff demeanor, and he gives us small glimpses into the character struggling to realize how little he has put into his children and how much of a burden he is on their mom.
Meanwhile, Ellar Coltrane’s laid-back style as Mason doesn’t necessarily suggest an actor in the conventional sense, but nothing could be more perfect for a film which captures the moments of life from a distance as this film does. The film is not interested, as many films would be, with “getting us into the psychological depths of his character” – Ellar is very much a cipher for the film’s study of growing up and memory, necessarily entailing some distance and the sanding down of the big emotions and depths of a character over time. Ellar is not capturing a living human being as much as a human boxed off in a glass case for us to observe, a human as he exists in his own memories, and a performance that attempted to explore the character’s mindset would be at odd angles with the film. As it is, he is perfectly in sync with the film’s intentionally distant analysis.
The film’s implicit focus on memory also colors some of the notable backlash critiques the film has met with (following, naturally, the initial universal praise for the film). Most notably, a mid-film dramatic turn that feels out of touch with the more sedate, fleeting non-narrativeness of the film feels far more fitting when viewed through the lens of a child remembering one particular “big” life event. As a result, the similarities in his mother’s marriage choices appear less like full truths than the profound mental weight of one marriage leaving an impression upon a child’s future understanding of life. He cannot truly conceptualize a full picture of the adults around him, and neither can the film.
Secondly, the film’s tendency to focus on pop cultural elements for the sake of capturing the passage of time appears forced at first. Further introspection reflects on how our memories of time past are biased to reflect the pop cultural icons of the day. Thus when the camera lets “us” know it is 2001 by fixating on no less than three Dragon Ball Z images, it is forced only because it reflects how our minds become colonized by pop culture. In our fleeting memories of the past, especially childhood, we tend to grasp on to such images. They tend to define who we are, to define our nostalgia, and to become one with us. This is never more true than in the final moments, with lines of dialogue that ring out less like falsity than a reflection of how pop culture and, especially, movies about teenage life, have come to define how teenagers speak, and how they see themselves. The film is less capturing time as truth than capturing how we remember it (telling especially when one considers how the scenes from 2001 were filmed in that year but likely edited in to the finished film much later, with Linklater and co. likely struggling to remember the images themselves, thus transforming their power.)
Perhaps the greatest thing about Boyhood is that it feels incomplete, and knowingly so. By its very nature, it should not feel complete – it is not a narrative of completeness, but of the incompleteness of memory, as well as how we can still grasp on to profound moments of humanism within that incompleteness. The film’s final lines reveal the film’s intentions by capturing how we are always in the “moment”, so to speak – the film follows suit by trying to recapture “present” moments from the perspective of time and coming to terms with whether it is possible to do so. We are always in the “moment”, and this limits our ability to remember the past even as it allows us to re-conceptualize and remember other “moments”, a double-edged sword that allows us to find meaning only in losing the fullness of past events. Even Linklater’s attempts to recollect his directorial style over time serves as a reflection of the way we as people remember our past selves, staking out new meanings as we lose the old ones.
Fittingly, though, the film is anything by disjointed, with a painterly, wistful air as if falling in and out of deep meditation or coming in and out of a dream. It’s a calming film, flowing like the waves of an ocean. Or like time spent with old friends. More importantly, with its structural mechanics and editing rhythms evoking a semblance of impressionism, less like the act of living and more like wafting in and out of a collection of stamped and stored memories ever-breathing in the mind, it is one of the few modern dramas with narrative mechanics that actually re-conceptualize the way we think about narrative flow. It is a film for which the editing, the visual structure, the flow of specific image to specific image, tells a story about how we interact with film as an object of subjective history and lost time. It is a work where technique and subject are in perfect unison, something to cherish for much longer than the film’s baker’s dozen of years in the making.