I understand that my headline must sound like second-rate hyperbole. Second-rate I’ll cop to. But hyperbole it is not.
After watching Boyhood, I couldn’t help but feel like I had approached the film ill-prepared. A longtime Richard Linklater fan with a steady appetite for the sentimental, I was indelibly excited to see at last how the filmmaker had woven 12 years of footage into a vast, sweeping, cohesive story about the very idea of growing up. How such an expansive and ambitious project would materialize with the meticulous attention to theme and character, and the sparkling intellect that we’ve seen in almost every one of Linklater’s pictures to date. But what I learned, and exerted to repeatedly relearn, during my viewing of Boyhood was that this wasn’t like any of his films to date, or any other film I’d ever seen. Not necessarily in quality, but form.
Our culture has no shortage of maxims about appreciating the present. We’re goaded by movies to smell the roses, seize the day, stop and look around once in a while, swear that we are infinite, and say “what the f**k?” But your standard living-in-the-moment pictures fall shy of their conquest, amounting as little more than a celebration of the occasional high-risk expedition. In earnest, living in the moment isn’t a phenomenon limited to excitement; it’s one that is just as celebratory of moments like the scenes that comprise Boyhood: We watch preadolescent Mason (Ellar Coltrane) amble aimlessly down a suburban road as his pals tease a mentally disabled teenaged neighbor. Later, he talks with his father (Ethan Hawke) about the logical impossibility of a narrative follow-up to Return of the Jedi. At one point, he and a few peers sip beers and toss hatchets at a slab of plywood.
Nobody gets injured, the abuse of the mentally disabled teen doesn’t spawn a series of “life lesson” consequences that teach Mason about compassion, and the Star Wars thing is only funny in extra-movie context. Each and every one of Boyhood‘s scenes, not these alone, is an entirely present ordeal. They are not brick nor mortar in a lengthy construction process that can only in full view reveal its motives. That’s what we look for in movies — that kind of patient build-up, those eventual thematic tie-ins. Means to an end. But Linklater’s intention is ready and accessible in every beautiful moment in Boyhood, eager for notice from the get-go as six-year-old Mason drinks in Texas’ afternoon sky and daydreams about insects. From the very first moment, the film is “complete.”
As such, it might prove difficult at first for a seasoned cinephile to enjoy Boyhood, to even learn how to watch and access a movie of this sort. Operating in contrast to traditional narrative momentum, Boyhood might well throw for a loop anybody approaching with their standard voyeuristic devices in tow. The film is not unsympathetic, nor inattentive, to this conflict; those abetting the “forward” mentality will see themselves in Mason’s mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a woman inflicted with the same obsession with the “what’s next” as we all tend to be. But the only forward pull in this movie is time. We’re never “working toward” or “waiting for,” instead reveling in the highs (camping trips, kisses, and Harry Potter book release parties), lows (parental spats, breakups, and ), and those everpresent mediums. The “nothing” moments that have more to them than any movie has ever invited us to acknowledge.
Its complete submission to those nothings, mediums, beautiful portraits of life’s fabric is what makes Boyhood unprecedented. As such, as suggested above, you might not know what to make of Boyhood the first time around, or even through the first few mental returns to the film that you are destined to venture. It doesn’t carry like a normal movie, so you won’t experience it like one — you are not likely to experience the cinematic awe you know and respect. You’ll experience something altogether new. Boyhood busts through the conventions of cinema to create just that. The fabrics of life onscreen. Once you hit that appreciation, however long it may take, you’re paralyzed by something that we’d be remiss to relegate to the term “magic.” This, like life itself, is a damn miracle.