Right About Now: The Unique Power of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’


1.

I sat down to watch Boyhood with extremely high expectations.[1] For the first hour or so, I was entertained and pleasantly intrigued, but I didn’t feel like I was seeing something transcendent. Yet as the film continued I began to notice an odd sensation of fullness just below my sternum. And this sensation, this fullness, steadily grew for the remainder of the movie, until by the end it was nearly unbearable. At times I thought I might cry, and in some ways I wish I had, but Boyhood didn’t, for all its force, take me in that direction. The power of this film isn’t first and foremost emotional, at least not for me, it’s existential and possibly even ontological.

Boyhood is a movie about what it means to be. Or, more precisely, what it means to be over time, and the film enables its viewer to encounter being over time in a way that no other film has before. And so my emotional response to the movie was one of gratitude. I was grateful to the movie for helping me to experience time in a manner both real and artful. Afterward my wife looked at me and said I seemed drugged. Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t. But I certainly felt a good bit more alive. What I didn’t understand was this: how did Boyhood do whatever it had done to me?[2]

2.

There are two main and distinct ways we experience the passage of time. The first is by noticing things like a sunset, a tree losing its leaves, a puppy growing into a dog, and an old friend — whom you haven’t seen in years — now looking like a different person altogether. The second is by reading a novel, attending a play, going to see a movie, or listening to that same friend tell a story about what she’s been up to since 1997. The first kind is immediate, takes place in real time, and — unless you believe in a certain kind of God — has no intrinsic meaning. The second is mediated, condenses or expands time, and, by virtue of being plotted and crafted in a million other ways, attempts to bestow meaning on the passage of time. The second requires temporal logic, but ultimate goes beyond it to include the grammar of narrative. The first, by contrast, is simply the raw experience of time. In other words, narrative needs time, but time doesn’t need narrative.

We go through life, especially this modern life, constantly bouncing back and forth between these two experiences. We get up in the morning and wonder if our ten year-old daughter, as she stumbles out of her nearly adolescent bedroom, hasn’t grown a bit overnight. We turn on the radio in the kitchen and listen to a report about unrest across the globe, a story making assertions about causality, intention, and culpability. We step outside and note with a pang of melancholy that the tulips are starting to wilt. We drive to work accompanied by fourteen minutes of Murakami’s latest novel read aloud. We sit in a morning meeting, and while zoning out for a moment, ask ourselves, “When did Craig’s hair get so grey?”

The two experiences exist in constant dialogue, and we come to understand one through the other. Without the real-time immediate variety, we wouldn’t be able to follow constructed narratives to begin with. We’d be unable to fill in gaps and incapable of knowing what to do with a flashback; we’d be unable to identify crafted time to begin with. But without crafted narratives we can’t make sense of our actual, immediate experiences, at least in terms of the meaning they might have within a larger stretch of time.[3] Indeed, this is almost certainly the ultimate source behind the universal storytelling impulse, the need to manipulate our experience of time in order to bestow meaning upon it.[4]

But the two rarely coexist. Documentary films and reality television and memoir and obsessively updated Facebook pages all make gestures toward collapsing the differences, but none quite succeed. Some of these feel comparatively unmediated, but ultimately remain too raw to produce a coherent narrative. Some run real experience through a narrative template, but the process involves forcing the raw material through a rigid, pre-existing plot form, such that the realness is transformed into hollowed out cliché.

Boyhood successfully combines them, but it’s important to explain what “combines” means in this context. After all, narrative already and necessarily contains an element of time. Linklater’s combination involves both a fictional story about the passage of time and a largely unmediated documentation of time passing. In other words, it’s possible to imagine this same screenplay produced as animation, or transposed into an accurate and even artful novelization. Both of those would narrate the same twelve years the film represents, and they might have some of the virtues of the film, but they would each clearly lack a dimension crucial to Boyhood’s power. Watching this film involves a steady meta-consideration on the part of the viewer, who is constantly trying to make sense of the fact that the characters are aging not just on-screen but in real life.[5] We are watching both the fictional Mason Jr. and the real Ellar Coltrane age.

This is the mechanism behind the film’s power. But how exactly does this power make itself felt, since our experience of it is at once self-evident and hard to articulate (see Dargis’ “I haven’t fully figured out why it has maintained such a hold on me”)? I think the answer can be found by considering the way Linklater’s particular combination creates a mutually reinforcing potency. Boyhood harnesses the power of realism and reality, it is both realistic and real, and it turns out each of these hits us harder when wrapped up with the other.

To begin with, Linklater artfully narrates an entire boyhood, thus creating a fictional story imbued with the kind of meaning filmmakers fashion through everything from lighting and soundtrack to editing and mise-en-scene. Among other things, this makes us appreciate, almost in some general way, the significance of growing up, of passing through all those years. Indeed, despite the hundreds and hundreds of film about adolescence and coming of age, Boyhood may be the first one that actually narrates a coming of age in its entirety. More conventional films necessarily restrict themselves to a relatively limited stretch of time, such as a single summer, which is to be understood as a watershed in the life of the protagonist. Alternatively, the filmmaker may make a temporal leap or two, but this requires him to cast a second and sometimes third actor to play the same character. But even then a great deal of time will be ignored. Both conventional strategies radically understate — and in this sense misrepresent — the slow, steady nature of growing up. If nothing else, the basic structure of Linklater’s narrative captures a simple truth about transforming from a boy into a man: the scope of change is literally mind-boggling, for both the person himself and for those witnessing this change.

Of course, this vital truth would be unavailable to Linklater without constructing his narrative over the course of twelve years. In other words, throughout the film he is telling us not-so-subtly, Actual time is actually passing, I have condensed these twelve years so you can see them all in just under three hours. In this regard, watching Boyhood activates whatever that magical thing is we feel when watching a clip showing us a flower growing over the course of just twenty seconds. The fictional film hits us harder because we involuntarily extrapolate a one-to-one ratio between the time represented and the time of representation. In other words, we experience the movie as somehow both almost three hours long and twelve years long as well.

To be sure, any halfway decent film compels the viewer to undertake meaningful gap-filling, thanks to which we come to believe that the film is ninety minutes long, but sort of twelve months long, too. But only sort of. The gaps in Boyhood, by contrast, possess a certain ontological weight simply absent from other films. In other words, the audience knows, without even thinking about it, that a great many important events are taking place off-screen. But this knowledge is riddled with a potent slippage between the imagined and the real. Some of these gaps are fictional — the mother’s third divorce, the father’s courtship of his second wife, the sister’s leaving home — but some of them are not. This crucial, latter group includes things as varied as Ellar Coltrane’s voice dropping, most of 2007, and the election of Barack Obama.

But this slippage has me wondering if this second list can be said to be fully distinct from the first. After all, Mason Jr.’s voice drops too, and we see on-screen that Barack Obama is running for president. Whatever the case, the uniquely doubled type of gap-filling Boyhood activated in me is, I think, responsible for the strangely physical response I had to the film. I was, I believe, being filled up by all those gaps, thanks to my sense that they didn’t exist only in my imagination. They were all a little too real for me to accommodate in just 164 minutes. As I joked to a friend not long after seeing it, I’m not sure Boyhood is the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly the most.

3.

So that’s the conceit, which is simple enough, however much Linklater and everyone else involved in the production deserve huge amounts of credit for realizing something unrealized before (a fact that suggests it may have been simple, but far from easy). Yet Boyhood is much more than this gimmick, as it benefits from dozens of small decisions that elevate the film and intensify the effect of this combination. These choices, conscious or not, point to the fact that Linklater and his collaborators had (or gradually acquired) a nuanced sense for the vast potential lying behind this kind of experimental film. As such, I think it’s worth considering two of these choices in detail.

First, the film, despite its length, remains relatively uncluttered by monumental events or an overabundance of monumental characters. Outside of the four family members, everyone else comes and goes. In fact, mother, father, and sister all disappear before the final ten minutes, fittingly leaving Mason Jr. (whose boyhood may already be over) as the only true constant in the film.[6] Similarly, no subject matter, subplot, or event is allowed to take over the movie. There’s an abusive step-father, but the moment the mother removes her children from his home he is gone from the film forever. There is a fair amount of substance use, and even some substance abuse, but despite its steady appearance in the story, none of the central characters becomes an addict or even has a related run-in with the law. No one winds up in a horrible accident, no one commits a life-changing crime, no one even dies.

In other words, Boyhood is bigger than any of its individual moments and subplots, as it stubbornly refuses to be “about” anything other than the stretch of time that comprises this boyhood. This film is in a sense an argument that life is ultimately much more than the sum of its parts. Or no, that’s not quite accurate. Life is precisely the sum of its parts, but it’s this sum — the very existence of its paradoxically fleeting accumulation — that matters most. In this way (and in a hundred other ways), the film alerts us to the superficial, small-mindedness of even many relatively good films, films that revolve around this or that limited and limiting experience — love and marriage, pregnancy and childbirth, crime and incarceration — however profound these experiences may be. One of this film’s great achievements, to my mind, is the way it reveals the inadequacy of plot summary, at least in its own case.

Boyhood is a uniquely ambitious film that realizes its central ambition by remaining modest and understated in so many secondary ways. I kept waiting, as I grew more and more invested in the protagonist, for something possibly irreversible to occur: a car accident,[7] a pregnancy, a horrible act of violence. I feared this both because my empathy for the main characters had grown past my ability to remain indifferent, but also because my movie-going experience tells me that this is what 99% of all movies do: they take their character’s life and turn it into a life “about” something, and in this way fit it snugly on the track of a complication and its resolution. In a film of this sort, character, in a sense, is put in service of this complication, and his or her story becomes less about what it means to be alive in the first place and more what it means to have this or that kind of life, to have no choice but to resolve this or that kind of conflict. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “action is character.” It’s not that Linklater seems to disagree with this, it’s more that the main thing his protagonist does is simply be.

Second, though it seems Linklater wrote this film with a light hand, letting moments come and go, allowing transitions to occur with little fanfare, he bookends the film with a handful of moments and scenes that provide subtle commentary on the film itself. Near the beginning, the protagonist sits in a narrow space between a garage and a fence, the kind of non-space young boys are drawn to. He is contemplating a dead bird, which is, remarkably, the first and only direct encounter with death he has in the entire film.[8] Despite the absence of death in Boyhood, this early moment alerts us to what is likely the ultimate source of our need to make sense of time: nothing is permanent, everything changes, everything dies.[9] Or maybe there is a “death” the film narrates, the death, or passing, of boyhood. After all, one of the most perplexing aspects of seeing the movie is managing to truly accept that the 18 year-old Ellar Coltrane/Mason Jr. is indeed the same person/character as the six year-old Ellar/Mason Jr.

The second such moment, and the first genuinely poignant moment in the film, comes as the family (or ¾ of the family) is preparing to move, something they will do many times in what follows. Mason’s mother instructs the protagonist, brush in hand, to paint over any marks or scuffs on the wall. The boy stands in front of a doorframe on which his growth has been steadily marked out. The image is iconic and could easily be made to drip with nostalgia: different colored pens, different dates, a series of rising horizontal lines. But Linklater, as he does so often, refuses to manipulate the image, he merely presents it to us. For a moment we watch from over Mason’s shoulder as he does nothing, just contemplates this chronicle on the wall, this list of moments marking his own growth. He’s obviously too young to understand in any abstract, conceptual manner why what he’s about to do is a kind of violence against memory, but it’s wrong to assume he doesn’t sense something just the same. And then, just like that, with a couple flicks of the brush, his personal history is erased. It’s a devastating moment, in part because it comes and goes so quickly.

Toward the end of the film the main character becomes a photographer. He begins capturing individual moments for himself, cutting them off from the ruthless flow of time, perhaps so they can be appreciated in isolation. The choice to have the main character become an artist is fitting and even obvious enough in and of itself, but this particular type of artist could easily be read as a subtly commentary on the kind of film he finds himself in. To be a photographer can be seen as a rejection of the long view of time, as embracing a moment over a narrative. And yet, near the very end, after the protagonist has already left his family behind, he stops at a rural gas station to fill up. On a whim he takes out his camera and begins snapping pictures of the oddly curious gas station. Only everything he chooses to capture possesses within itself the passage of time: a rusty lantern, a broken traffic light, an obsolete fire hydrant. The opposition between the isolated moment and the stretch of time is revealed to be a false one.[10]

And then, at the very end, the protagonist and a brand new character sit at the edge of a giant expanse, taking in a decidedly majestic view. In classic Linklaterian fashion, they talk and talk and talk about rather complicated ideas. We are watching what might be the beginning of a romance, as there is a handful of moments in which it looks like these two might kiss. Then the girl says something like,[11] “You know that thing everyone says, Seize the moment. I think it’s actually the opposite. The moment seizes you.” The protagonist smiles a contented, stoned smile and responds with the last line of the film. “There is only ever now,” or something along those lines. It’s an astonishing final bit of a dialogue in a film that seems to be so single-minded in its effort to capture time as an experience of duration, of continuity, of time as a thing with length. But here the film turns itself on its head, and presents us with a great irony regarding our relationship to time.[12] There is — our young, wise protagonist is absolutely right — only the present moment, and yet we very rarely manage to experience time as such, or even think to do so, because our minds are so dominated by our impulse to narrate.

Of course this last scene takes us back to the opening shot of the film: a pleasantly cloudy sky. This is the first thing we see, and it’s only after the subsequent edit that we learn this is a point of view shot. The protagonist, just six years old, is contemplating the sky, apparently consumed by the moment in a way available only to children.[13] Here at the end, with the aid of mind-altering substances, the protagonist rediscovers this experience. Continuity becomes repetition. Though it is actually repetition with change. Mason Jr.’s experience is now mediated by language, diluted by abstract thought, and likely motivated by his effort to bond with another person. He’s too old for a simple, one-dimensional relationship to time, but at least he’s thinking about time, and that’s a start. Indeed, I left the theater thinking, That kid would really love a film like Boyhood.


[1] In addition to being a huge Linklater fan for years, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Boyhood has a score of 100 at metacritic.com, which essentially means that every national critic thinks the film is a genuine masterpiece.

[2] And not only me. Some critics have expressed their admiration for the film in starkly personal language they’d be unlikely to use for even the most technically brilliant films. Manohla Dargis, New York Times film critic writes: “Even after seeing the film three times, I haven’t fully figured out why it has maintained such a hold on me, and why I’m eager to see it again.” See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/movies/movie-review-linklaters-boyhood-is-a-model-of-cinematic-realism.html?&_r=0.

[3] There are, of course, approaches to time (from meditation to The Power of Now) that question the primacy we give to stretches of time over isolated moments. I will have more to say about this below.

[4] For this reason, much of our internal lives involves the constant, semi-conscious transformation of present, immediate experience into stories, which is another way of saying we’re narrating our identities to ourselves all the time. Our profound need to do this perpetually — whatever the reason — goes a long way toward explaining why it’s so maddeningly difficult to “be in the moment.”

[5] I’ve wondered what kind of experience someone would have watching this movie without knowing the story behind it. At what point would they figure it out? Or wouldn’t they? Would they simply assume that the producers miraculously located a family with a half-dozen sons (and another with a half-dozen daughters) that all look almost identical? And if they assumed the latter, would they think the movie was anything all that special? I’m guessing they’d find it an odd, intermittently compelling movie.

[6] Interestingly, the entire film takes place within the vast borders of Texas and investigates a huge number of its distinct locations in the process. Some of this was certainly a function of budget, but nevertheless I think it’s fair to claim Linklater’s home state as a central character in the film as well. And, if nothing else, it reminds us that the spatial axis of existence is no less essential than the temporal.

[7] I fond myself fearing this quite consciously in the scene were Mason Jr. drives himself and his high school girlfriend Sheena to Austin about three-quarters into the film. There is a brief sequence here that ends with him looking at an image on her cell-phone. He looks at it for a while, and at that moment I was terrified that they would get into an accident. But then I realized, thankfully, that Boyhood isn’t that kind of film. That in this case meaning a film that believes “something” (i.e. something monumental) must happen in order to earn and maintain our attention.

[8] There is an indirect encounter with death, which includes images of corpses, a bit later on, when a news report about the killing of American soldiers in Falluja is shown on a TV at a bowling alley.

[9] In this regard, it’s a shame that later on — when Mason Jr. receives from his father a compilation of the best of the music the Beatles created as solo artists — that his dad mentions George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and not the title track from that album, “All Things Must Pass.”

[10] Similarly, as a friend pointed out to me, we only see Mason’s photographs of his girlfriend — which are clearly intended to capture something about her and his desire for her — after she is no longer his girlfriend anymore.

[11] All dialogue reconstructed (poorly) from memory.

[12] And this is an irony that Linklater and/or Coltrane seem aware of, since right after he delivers this final line he looks for just a split second right into the camera. I was ready for it the second time I saw the movie, and it was an oddly potent moment. There was something so jarring in this gesture that it nearly forced me to look away. I imagine this has something to do with how Coltrane’s breaking of the fourth wall further complicates the fictional-real tensions at the heart of the entire movie. And to do it at the very, very end — not to mention in a moment that confronts us with a radically different philosophy of time — makes for a rather overwhelming split-second.

[13] Though we do learn a few seconds later, once he’s talking to his mother, that he was also trying to figure out how a thing transforms from nothingness into existence, coming up with a theory that if you throw a rock into the air in just the right way it will turn into a wasp. Even as a young boy, the protagonist is preoccupied with change over time.