When describing something like Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s attempt to capture the experience of growing up in something resembling real-time, it’s easy to toss around hyperbolic terms like “brilliant” and “tour de force” – and even easier to get swept up in them. With something this ambitious and experimental, you walk into the theater expecting your life to be altered, your mind opened to new, profound insights into the human condition, whatever that means. To tell the truth, though, Boyhood is nothing like that. Just as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life didn’t reveal the meaning of the universe, Boyhood doesn’t shed light on any mind-blowing secrets about coming of age in contemporary America. It is, in fact, rather ordinary.
The boy in question, named Mason Jr. and played by neophyte actor Ellar Coltrane, is no one special. He’s white and able-bodied, gradually evolving from a fresh-faced kid into a gangly teenager with a pierced ear, possessing few exceptional qualities except a penchant for photography and moody philosophizing. The 12 years of his life covered by the film (compressed into a nearly three-hour running time, which feels surprisingly like nothing at all) contain little that could be categorized as action and follow only the ghost of a narrative structure, not rising toward a climax so much as meandering around one. Even the most ostensibly sensational events, such as Mason’s strained interactions with his two alcoholic stepfathers, are conveyed through the dispassionate gaze of a documentarian. Although it offers an intimate look at the everyday existence of its protagonist, the movie never really allows us into his head; we merely observe, never experience.
Deprived of the visceral immediacy I had been anticipating, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat let down at first. What I thought would be a joyful celebration of youth instead turned out to be a rather depressing reminder of how boring reality is, delivered from the perspective of someone I found neither relatable nor particularly interesting (especially as an adolescent, Mason is a quintessential Linklater character: wistful, talkative, laid-back and in love with his own thoughts). Once my initial reaction faded, however, it dawned on me that I was supposed to feel that way. Boyhood isn’t about catharsis; it’s about numbing, the sinking realization that this is it, this is life, and you have no idea what to do with it.
If that sounds like a downer, it is. Yet it’s also strangely captivating, unfurling with a dreamy, leisurely serenity that mirrors its Texas backdrop, not bowling you over with emotions so much as letting them sink into you and creep beneath your skin. Bereft of shocking revelations, turning points and anything else resembling a major plot twist, Boyhood revels in details – gestures, pop culture references, objects, places rendered with such evocative specificity it feels like you’re wandering through a memory. For example, when Mason accompanies his mother (Patricia Arquette in a performance revelatory for its quiet poignancy) to her college psychology class, he sees the professor put his hand on her back, and we instantly understand the implications of this tiny, seemingly casual act. Linklater is predominantly known for his dialogue, and to be sure, there’s plenty of it here, but he also puts on a clinic in how to impart information by showing rather than telling.
In the hands of almost any other director, Boyhood might have ended up as little more than a curiosity, its unconventional filming style elevating a fairly conventional teen movie plot (alcohol-soaked parties? Check. Short-lived romances? Check. Heart-to-heart conversations about the future? You’re damn right check). But with his naturalistic direction and subtle script, Linklater infuses the proceedings with a sense of sincerity that most coming-of-age films lack, eschewing shallow nostalgia and familiar clichés in favor of something messier and more honest. Furthermore, anyone who dismisses the premise as a mere gimmick would be mistaken. On the contrary, it’s the entire point. Life, according to Boyhood, is basically meaningless; there’s no grand master plan, no higher purpose to the series of arbitrary benchmarks we pass on our way to death (to paraphrase Arquette in the movie’s most haunting scene). What make it all worthwhile are the little things, the fragments of time between benchmarks when you forget about the inevitability of mortality and the impermanence of things. Life is about the clear sunset that greets you after a long hike, the song you hear on the car radio, the near-infinite number of seconds that tick by as you debate whether to kiss the girl sitting next to you. It’s about the moments that are there and then, before you know it, gone.