I’ve Been Living In The Shadows of Your Song: Growing Up With “Boyhood”
I first saw Boyhood with my high school best friend. We reunited after my freshman year at Wesleyan, right before he was about to start at Sarah Lawrence. I had begun to find my place in a theater clique, surrounded by new people I wanted to spend the rest the rest of my life with. Now, I was back in Virginia, with my old friend, at the same Vienna theater we had seen everything at since we were 10. Ready to jump back another 12 years.
One of the first scenes that strikes me is a boy discovering a dead bird in his backyard. Then, he’s inside his home, sitting at the dinner table with his sister and mother. His mother tells them their family is moving to Houston. None of these details paralleled my own life, but it didn’t seem to matter. By cutting out everything between the bird he found and his mother’s news, I got the sense this movie thought of memory the same way I did: drawn from life’s enormous and mundane moments on a whim.
In this first viewing, I was snapped Boyhood’s rhythm. I fell into its passage of time, spontaneously coming up for air to acknowledge where I was as the years ticked away. That’s when I got my copy of The Half Blood Prince. That’s when I couldn’t shut up about Tropic Thunder. My brain didn’t know how to process this steady march into the future, so it saw all of it as my own reality. I didn’t think there was anywhere else to be than in the world of this movie. During the end credits, my BFF and I looked at each other; eyes red, knocked down. He pointed to the screen and said, “We got to watch ourselves grow up.”
I went to my mom. “There’s this filmmaker Richard Linklater. He shot one movie over 12 years, we have to go see it. I think you’ll like it.” I recognized so much of my mother’s care and resilience in Olivia (Patricia Arquette). I hadn’t thought she may not have much interest in a film depicting what she already knew about herself. During the end credits, she described the film as “interesting,” “too long,” and “a shame that the boy didn’t grow up to be a very good actor!” I empathized with her review and started to think about Boyhood like a critic. The viewing felt twice as long, and confirmed that I might not be putting this film on as often as the Before series, or School of Rock, or Dazed and Confused. I still admired so many moments Linklater was able to craft in his grand experiment, but was now overcome with a vague pessimism: there’s no way every scene in a movie made like this could be perfect. Boyhood’s accomplishment was unparalleled; my passion for it might be held up for question.
Years have passed. I’m now smack between Ellar Coltrane’s age when he finished shooting the film and Ethan Hawke’s when he started. I’m both young and well into adulthood, assured of my professional goals and flailing my arms trying to achieve them. I can feel, as Hawke’s Mason Sr. would say, my skin getting tougher. New formative life moments — new friends, jobs, and heartaches — feel less affective. My memory of Boyhood had become melancholic to me. I was afraid what perspective I would take on the film without being as close to Mason’s age and direct experiences.
In 2019, Boyhood is everything it was to me from those two viewings. It’s still messy, inert and restless. I don’t enjoy watching all of it. But it’s also comforting. Stirring. I found a new message in the film. Somewhere near the last third of the movie, Mason’s photography teacher comes into his high school dark room. He asks Mason why he’s spending time in here, an extracurricular room, if he hasn’t finished his actual photo assignments. This is where Mason first hears the realities of being an artist; the inseparability of talent from work ethic. I had understood and empathized with this scene before. Today, it makes me cry.
I don’t watch Boyhood thinking about how I grew up anymore. Now, to me, it’s about watching someone grow from an observer into an artist. About a boy who spends so much of his youth being seized by moments out of his control — from moving days, to parental strife, to dead birds — that he learns to let himself be seized by them. To take out his camera and embrace the ineffable significance of a mundane moment.
This month, Boyhood is five years old. Its importance to me is constant and ephemeral. As I grow older, each viewing has brought me new insight. Yet it’s the film’s portrayal of memory that always surprises me in its specificity.
Boyhood’s driving point of view evolves from Mason’s family to Mason himself as he begins to engage with the world around him. I hardly noticed this transition before; Linklater so densely packs this 142-minute film with new memories that my own memory of Mason’s personality changes feel fuzzy. At age six, Mason is more than content to observe himself shuffle through his life — he’s fed, he’s taken to school, he sits in bed with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and is read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by his mom. He hides behind his bedroom door, quiet as ever, listening to his mom argue with her boyfriend that he doesn’t understand her responsibilities. The image of a kid cowering as a parent yells downstairs is a staple of any family story, film or otherwise. Yet there’s a quiet fear in Coltrane’s eyes that stands out to me. There’s a bite to Olivia’s lines and fire within Arquette’s performance: “I was someone’s daughter, then I was somebody’s fucking mother! Okay? I don’t know what that’s like!”
In most films with a scene like this — a six-year-old in a precarious moment, hearing his mom spit out these words — Mason would start to become a terror. He’d rebel against his mom and try to find the meaning in all of this sadness. But that’s not how I was as a kid. I didn’t speak up. I would wait to be told how to think. Boyhood, unlike most other coming-of-age films, has the time to capture that boredom. Childhood isn’t a series of opportunities to learn something. It’s a series of unexplainable moments Mason may never take anything away from.
At age seven I made my first short film. I remember bouncing around on my trampoline, thinking about a superhero who could shoot pink blobs out of his butt. I remember another 7-year-old reading my hand-written script and telling me there was no way I could make this, and I cried because I believed him. And I remember my best friend, playing “Mrs. Sun,” arriving to filming day with her hair done up in a bun. I had never seen hair done up that way. For one of the first eventful experiences in my life, I don’t remember writing, directing, starring, or screening this movie. Those moments wouldn’t make my own Boyhood movie. But I remember thinking about my friend’s hair. The rest didn’t matter as much.
Boyhood, at least in its first act, feels edited from a perspective that almost circumvents Mason’s reactions to his life changing around him. He meets his future stepfather Professor Bill the day Olivia brings him to her class — Bill touches Olivia’s back and asks if her babysitter will be around at some point. We linger on Mason walking to the classroom door, observing this private conversation. The next scene in the film is Mason on a trampoline, rushing off to greet Mom and Bill as they return from their honeymoon in Paris. This cut in the first viewing jarred me. Today, it devastates me. Not just because I know the abusive alcoholic Bill will reveal himself to be. It’s because all that time is suddenly gone. Linklater sweeps us into this film as his characters grow and shape inch by inch. Suddenly you don’t remember when Mom told you she was getting married, or you met your new step-siblings.
The quiet and mundane scenes of Mason’s youth are there to show the context from which he finds his voice. The first time we see him assert his opinion is four years (or 36 minutes) into the film — Mason Sr. berates him and Samantha for being so quiet on their weekends together, and Mason raises his voice and retorts “Why is it all on us, though?” He wants to hear about dad’s life, not talk about his own. Mason Sr. nods, says “I see your point,” and Mason smiles. Something clicks. This weekend in Houston, where Ethan Hawke plays hide and seek with Ellar and Lorelei around an art statue, is a sigh of relief. Their weekend away is a warm contrast to the building agony of Mason and Samantha’s home lives. It’s also the grounding for an ease Mason will share with his father.
As Boyhood progresses, Mason’s dreams start to take the wheel. He becomes a weirdo: an affable weirdo who loves his mom and dad, but a weirdo with a penchant for art that makes no sense. He goes to a summer camp where he makes a spray painting — we don’t see him at the camp and we don’t see him paint, but we do see him try to talk to the girl in the cool fedora at his mom’s party about the meaning of the painting. It’s this sequence where Boyhood starts to define Mason as less of a vessel for the all-around American boy than a vessel for a young Texan artist… an awful lot like a certain Texan filmmaker. Linklater has said “The design of the film was to go where Ellar went.” Ellar has said “I wouldn’t be the person I am if I weren’t in the movie.” In high school, Linklater won a Scholastic Art and Writing Award; in high school, Mason wins a Silver Metal for photography in a state contest. Boyhood’s life-imitating-art feedback loop is dizzying.
I too was an affable weirdo at 16. I had a head full of odd, contradictory inspirations: Next to Normal, The Tree of Life, Tim & Eric. Yet the drive in my head to be a filmmaker didn’t gel with how little I was picking up a camera. I enrolled in a summer filmmaking program and made extremely bad movies: a stalker who wants to push his victim against a wall and just run away. A man who learns he is dead so he walks up to Heaven (?). The bad shorts changed my life. It’s where I learned to observe what I think is interesting and make something of it, no matter how dumb or inconsequential. On his drive to UT Austin, Mason pulls over at a gas station, nabs his camera and shoots an old lantern hanging on a wire. There’s no significance to the lantern in the rest of the film. There doesn’t need to be. The moment just seized him.
Boyhood champions the accumulation of time — the magnitude of seeing how far someone you grew up has come. Brief characters you forget about return much later: Olivia tells the man who works on his septic line he should go to school, and years later he’s the manager at the restaurant she’s eating at. Mason’s family photo on graduation day becomes way more surreal when his grandmother arrives onscreen, her first scene since the one she shared with Ethan Hawke 10 years earlier.
Yet there’s a tragedy to Boyhood in what time doesn’t change. We have spent a generation watching Olivia raise her kids, run away from two husbands, and become a well-respected psychology teacher. She accomplishes all this just to end up alone, her kids leaving the nest, heads full of aspirations that will take place far away from her. Her dream had been to help Mason achieve his dream, and her work is done. In their last scene, Mason watches Olivia break down. Like when he was six, there’s nothing Mason can do for her. Olivia wants all of that time back. “I just thought there would be more.”
I watch that scene alone and feel reverential over what my mother has done for my older brother, my younger brother, and me. Yet five years ago, seeing Boyhood with my mom and through her eyes, the poetry to that life cycle peters out. I imagine that when my kids are leaving the house and plan to live far away from me, I won’t need a movie telling me that life change is very sad. I’ll live with it like a healthy adult who doesn’t need to YouTube “Boyhood Movie CLIP — Thought There Would Be More (2014)” nightly to help me remember I’m not alone. Yet watching Boyhood means to vicariously live with Patricia Arquette as she grows up, and her character Olivia as she defines herself. The film gives me at my current age an empathy for this life change I may never experience, that I will never experience the way she has, or my mother has. The journey offers my mom nothing new — just the same, possibly, reflected backwards. Yet the journey makes me feel closer to her.
One of the last scenes in Boyhood shows Mason meeting his roommate Dalton and Dalton’s friends Barb and Nicole. It’s possible these new friendships don’t last orientation, it’s possible they last a lifetime, we won’t find out. It’s that possibility — the beginning of Mason’s life — that stirs me the most. Today, I see Mason’s artistic journey in Boyhood the clearest. Five years ago, I saw his 21st-century adolescence the clearest. 10 years from now, I’ll see Mason Sr.’s precarity the clearest. Boyhood will be more than a time capsule of a life that paralleled my own; as I age well past Mason, Linklater’s film will continue to teach me about myself.