There has been a lot of talk about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an ambitious coming-of-age drama filmed over the course of 12 years, which rightfully includes a handful of Oscar nominations as well as some deliciously phrased reviews. (The Dallas Morning News’ review includes my favorite quote involving an elephant.)
Very obviously there’s the Best Picture nod, as well as Best Director and Best Film Editing, which has come to more or less represent Most Directing and Most editing, an appropriate mutation for a project that must have accrued 100,000 hours of B-roll. And then there’s Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.
This is important because, for as much as Boyhood is about its titular phase of life for a boy growing into a young man, an equally scintillating narrative is woven with the commensurate growth of his parents. Or, perhaps, it’s the lack of growth. The similarities and differences between the two are well explored by the two fantastic actors, though I think what you get from it will differ depending on your age when you watch it.
The majority of the movie actually tracks the life of Mason Evans Jr. from age six in 2002 to just before he starts college in 2014. Played by Ellar Coltrane, we quite literally see a kid age and mature into an adult. It makes sitting down to Boyhood less of watching a movie and more of watching a life. You see his slow progression from child to awkward teen and suddenly shoot up into a man.
That shock is the veritable treasure of the entire movie. And it’s not just Coltrane but his sister (played by Lorelei Linklater) and Hawke and Arquette’s collective growth. Their faces and bodies and voices change and it is revelatory in a way. You forget just how quickly life can go by. This is a movie filled with all the nuances and annoyances and joys of a full, non-directed life and it still slips by in under three hours.
Set across major portions of Texas including Houston, San Marcos, and Austin, it’s interesting that so many actors in the film actually grew up in those cities. Coltrane and Hawke from Austin, Linklater (the director) from Houston, and others from San Antonio, Plano, and elsewhere in the Lone Star State. While it goes without saying that you can act like you’re from Texas, it’s something else to actually be from there.
The way Coltrane holds himself is distinctly Texan teen in the post-2000s. It’s not that teens from other parts of the country from other decades are so vastly different (there’s a timeline that reminds you of how the world grew up, too), but there are opinions, experiences, and relationships that seem to stem solely from existing within the state’s borders. The absurdly religious extended family, an unreasonable obsession with queso, flitting in and out of Austin’s downtown areas as you age into it. It’s all true.
However, the more remarkable part is the trials and tribulations of Hawke and Arquette’s Mason Sr. and Olivia. For as specific as the feel is of the actors and parts of the story to Texas, there is a poignancy to their older, already-of-age stories that will get overlooked as Mason Jr. attempts to reconcile youth and responsibility.
(There will probably be slight spoilers from here on out, so if you want to still watch the movie—and you should—then maybe come back to read the rest of this. I mean, you won’t because that’s not how interacting with any part of the Internet works, but I can dream.)
In fact, it’s precisely because of Mason Jr.’s growth that makes Mason Sr. and Olivia so amazingly real and tragic. The vast majority of their lives are just a disaster. Divorced, Olivia goes through a string of drunk, abusive, and terrifying husbands. Mason Sr. tries to maintain a relationship with his children, estranged over distance and a disdain for patriarchal figures via Olivia’s aforementioned experiences.
But then things start to work out. Well, not really. There’s a thing Mason Sr. says towards the end, when he’s finally settled down, giving up his reckless life of working on boats and driving his GTO. No one knows what life is about, what it’s all for. It’s a sentiment expressed by innumerable films and stories since the inception of films and stories, but it sticks because we’ve just now seen it over the course of three hours.
These people didn’t grow up. They didn’t even mature. They just grew a thick skin. Feelings become numbed through just living each day, getting beat up by life and each other. Mason Sr. drives a minivan and has to endure the entirety of shuffling another child through adolescence to adulthood, his former roommate Jimmy now an actual and successful musician instead of himself. Olivia is once again and ostensibly forever single, living in an empty and tiny nest with, in her own words, an unfulfilled life.
Life to these people is impossibly cyclical. Broken hearts and disappointed expectations abound, a meaning to it all confounds and eludes us as the familiar sound of deep cuts scarring over settle into repeat. It’s meandering into hopefulness and pushing back the tide of depression each time the waves bash us over our heads, giving in every once in a while to remind us that, well, who knows. But it reminds us of something, that’s for sure.
For as smile inducing as the film ends, talking about the moment seizing us instead of us seizing the moment, you realize it’s just as bleak as it is optimistic. We are in such little control of what we experience that the moment grabs us and throttles us instead of the other way around. As Mason Jr. takes it as a sign pointing to a bucolic scene of friends and a future, we just saw three hours to the contrary.
It wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does riding a perfect line between being all out depressing and excessively happy if the performances of Hawke and Arquette were so appropriately transformative. You can see it as the physical toll of 12 additional years of real life hang in their eyes, shifting from wilder, more impulsive youthful adults into hardened, complacency-subdued figures that filter in and out of the burgeoning futures of their children.
There’s a lot more to say about this film, but it all will probably be said at other places in better words. But these two lives, simultaneously nihilistic and joyous, deserve special attention that I especially cannot ignore. If you haven’t seen Boyhood yet, be sure to get around to it. And get around to doing everything else you’ve been wanting to do. Life goes a lot faster than any of us would like.