Boyhood is one of those films that seems to become more remarkable the further I get away from it. At this point, it’s been a week and a half since I saw it, and it hasn’t faded from my thoughts. It’s just gradually taken over more and more of them.
I’ve long thought there are two kinds of movies – movies that work like dreams and movies that work like memories. The dream movies are rarer. Think of 2001: A Space Odyssey (any of Kubrick’s films, really), David Lynch’s more surrealistic works (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Eraserhead), or, I’d argue, William Friedkin’s films. Dream films include unexplainable shots and scenes and lack narrative logic moment to moment. The overall aim of the film isn’t usually to make sense of life but rather to communicate life’s inherent mystery.
Almost every film released is a memory film. They depict a series of events that together explain why a character is a certain way or does a certain thing. Like our own memories, they leave out events and data that don’t pertain to the event the movie exists to explain. If I asked you to tell me about an important moment in your life and how you got to that moment, you’d recount a series of events very much like a typical film plot—“I did this, and then this happened, then this, and then finally I realized this and did this, and things turned out this way.” Even films like The Tree of Life work this way (though in that case by using a more impressionistic method).
Boyhood certainly feels like memory. The film is two hours and forty five minutes of a boy’s life (Mason) as he ages from six to eighteen. The conceit, I’m sure you’ve heard, is that Richard Linklater and his cast shot the film a few scenes at a time every summer over the course of twelve years. So, unlike in most films, we see the characters age. Seeing characters age isn’t uncommon in films. Filmmakers usually achieve the effect via makeup instead of via time.
Linklater’s real masterstroke here is in the moments he chooses to focus on in Mason’s life. The film rarely includes “big” moments, but is instead made up of the moments around those moments. For instance, we don’t see one of Mason’s mother, Olivia’s, divorces, but we do see Mason’s step-father being almost abusive, and we see a short time later when Olivia is trying to decide what to do with the house. This skipping over the stereotypically big moments gives the film a sense of momentum. I always felt like I was trying to keep up with what was going on, and though the film is long, I was never bored.
Perhaps it’s because the film is set in Texas during a time when I was living in Texas, or maybe it’s because Linklater focuses on moments common to many people, but the film feels so much like my own memories, I find scenes from this film slipping into my thoughts in funny ways. Did I go camping at Dripping Springs, or was that Mason? And which one of us floated the river outside San Marcos? Somewhere around the beginning of the film’s second hour and since, I lost track.
Richard Linklater has never been a visual genius, but what he lacks in visual eloquence he more than makes up for in story-telling acumen. He knows which moments in his characters’ lives matter most, and he has the patience to let those moments distill out of whatever other plot is going on around them. It’s like he searches for those moments and then says, “Hey, this is great. Let’s stay here a while.” There is a refreshing ease to most of his films, Boyhood most definitely included.
At the end, there’s a very clearly stated “moral to the story,” and I won’t spoil it for you, though I will say that the moral is communicated better by the form of the film than it is by the characters that eventually speak it. Often, we look for meaning in the words the characters speak, but most often, real meaning is found in their actions and in the way the filmmaker tells her or his story.
As you watch Boyhood—and really, you should see it—try to figure out what it means that this film was shot little by little over the course of many years. What do the way Boyhood was made and the kinds of things the filmmakers choose to focus on communicate to you? How does the way Boyhood views life encourage you to view your own life? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I like what it encourages in me. I think you will feel the same yourself.