“What’s the point? I mean, I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it, you know? The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.”
The big sell for a lot of films, and other works of art, is scope. It’s the awe you feel when you pick up Infinite Jest, or you watch Michael Apted’s Up series. It’s what Sufjan Stevens capitalized on when he claimed he would record an album about all 50 states in America (though this one was a lie). I think a lot of people equate scope to greatness, especially when an established “visionary” is involved. There has been no better example of this big scope fascination than with Boyhood, which Richard Linklater shot using the same cast of actors over twelve years. Thankfully, the scope holds up, and Boyhood is an unquestionably beautiful movie.
There’s not some convenient “through line” to connect the different years of footage, and Linklater instead chooses to jump straight from year to year without some magical tell, using expository dialogue (or simply the visuals) to indicate how circumstances have changed over the years. The scope of the film is really nothing more than tell the story of a boy’s life. It sounds impossible, but he includes a mix of key moments (moving houses, high school graduation) with some pretty normal moments (going bowling) to round out 12 years of the protagonist’s life – as well as you could for a three hour movie.
My measure of success for Boyhood was how well a lot of these scenes ring true. It’s what drew me to Moonlight, a movie with a similar structure (and longer gaps). I also had the unique experience of growing up along the same time period as the protagonist almost right down to the year, so I got to experience the soundtrack and cultural events of my youth in a really resonant way. (Linklater nails the soundtrack, too, with big names like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga to mark the time period and also less familiar artists like Wilco or Arcade Fire that I associate even more powerfully with my youth.) In terms of the meat of the story, though, I think Boyhood relies on its resonance. Is the dialogue genuine? Does it hinge too much on either Linklater’s script or the shtick of the movie? Thankfully, I think about 90 percent of the movie feels real enough for a movie of this design, and Linklater unifies life with art in a really smart way, writing around the physical changes or life experiences of the actors to add authenticity to the movie.
Some bits in the middle seemed cliché, particularly the middle school bullying and peer pressure bits. I think movies have a hard time getting these tropes right, and they always come across as stock scenes included in any movie about children in school. I did, however, really enjoy the “camping” scene in the abandoned house when a young Mason falls victim to peer pressure in a really believable way: by seeing another boy get bullied for his hesitance to sex and beer and by pretending to be cool with those things as a result. I think a lesser movie would just have Mason himself get bullied, but scenes like that one are a little more dynamic and felt closer to my own experiences as a result.
Aside from some too familiar scenes, I think Boyhood takes a wide target and hits its mark appropriately and powerfully. Every scene is important to Mason’s life, but there’s a balance of big moments like the above quote and little moments of learning and growing. We get a lot of gaps due to the scope, but Linklater doesn’t seem explicitly interested in those gaps per say. We don’t need to know why Mason pierced his ear, and we can in fact infer or draw on our own experiences as to why he did so. Linklater is more concerned with beautiful moments throughout a boy’s childhood and what they can tell us about the human experience.
I’m also wary of three-hour movies, and I think Boyhood almost earns it. The final act seems too long, as if Linklater was having trouble letting go. I was actually really impressed by the pacing for the first few hours, and I felt like the three hours was flying by, until I realized that the 17-18 year old Mason is just a really long segment. In terms of unity, it feels unbalanced for this reason, and I was waiting for Linklater to finally accept that his subject just wasn’t a boy anymore. There are some really great scenes in this final sequence, but a few could definitely have been cut. I would have been satisfied with a lot of “cut to black” moments before the actual moment hit, which wasn’t nearly as powerful a time to end the film as some that came before. It’s a small gripe, but it sit with me strange because it dominated my thoughts for the last thirty minutes of the movie.
Boyhood is another “big scope” achievement, and like most of the famous ones, it pays off. Linklater is no fool, and he understands how to tell a story, even if he does so in a way that’s never been attempted before. I’m glad Birdman won Best Picture, but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with Linklater picking up Best Director if we’re to believe that award is more for the process than the product, because Boyhood is a really resonant, beautiful product, and one that I’ll be curious to revisit later in my life.
Films Left to Watch: 860