(This article first appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)
The movie’s opening scene is its most evocative: a five-year-old boy lies on his back upon the green grass, gazing up at the clouds passing on a blue sky, as if transfixed by a waking dream. The scene summons Longfellow’s words: “A boy’s will is the wind’s will / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”
Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood is an immersion in the life of one (fictional) boy. Filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast (we literally see the children grow up before our eyes), the film follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and their parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). Writer/director Linklater is known for his conversational, introspective and naturalistic portraits of everyday life and relationships-witness the trilogy of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that began with 1995’s Before Sunrise and revisited that couple at other stages of their relationship in Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). Boyhood follows a similar pattern, save that it focuses on the challenges, initiations, questions and discoveries of childhood, following its lead character from the age of five till he goes to college at the age of 18.
When we meet Mason, he’s a bit of a dreamer. “You’re still staring out the window all day,” observes his mother. But his life and that of his sister are filled with the familiar terrain of childhood: there are back-seat squabbles in the car (Samantha sings Justin Bieber songs just to bug her brother); there’s boyish curiosity about the opposite sex that manifests by looking at lingerie models in a Sears catalogue; there’s the uprooted, helpless feeling that comes with a family move; and there are the dashed hopes of a reconciliation between their estranged parents.
It’s the ebb and flow of everyday life-adjusting to new schools, struggling to fit in and trying to suss out one’s place in the world. The kids’ mother is unlucky in love. Her second husband becomes abusive, and Mason comes home to find his mother sobbing on the garage floor. As they flee, she tells her kids, “Don’t look back,” since, sometimes, self-preservation means leaving broken or poisoned relationships behind. Meanwhile, the kids’ birth father grows out of his early irresponsibility and becomes a good parent, telling his son that the boy’s mother is “just as confused as I am…We’re all just winging it.” And, quite often, that’s all any of us can do in life, simply doing the best we can-as parents, as children to our own parents, as siblings, as friends, as Christians or just as human beings trying to make our way in a confusing world.
One of Mason’s teachers scolds him for coasting on his natural talents and admonishes him to ask himself: “What do you want to be? What do you want to do?” Those are universal questions-commonplace, yet singular in their specificity for each and every one of us. Boyhood is 164 minutes long, but it never wears out its welcome, as it takes a leisurely journey through the lives of one family.
Caution: The film contains coarse language, including some briefly crude sexual talk.
John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist. Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.