A Long Series of Goodbyes
Boyhood opens with a transition: the family around which the film revolves is moving out of their home, and we get the full sense of its home-liness just before it is gone. The family packs and prepares to sell their house; there is work to do. Single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) plops paintbrushes in her two children’s hands with orders to make the walls—which are well-grafittied with youthful art—look new. In this moment, in the face of erasure, we suddenly notice the marks that signify presence, the individual histories of the children. A wide shot shows the children painting—after some grousing—and then switches to a close-up shot of a doorframe. The frame is marked with the familiar etchings of height, pen and pencil scrawled to mark the stages of growth. Suddenly the marks are gone as a paint brush sweeps a thick glob of white downwards, seemingly erasing the progress of the children. Scene change.
This opening scene creates a kind of sick tension of moving forward into the unknown while saying goodbye to the present, the comfortable. And this tension carries the viewer through the film, through twelve years during which the characters age through fads, fashions, and relationships that stir us with the embarrassment and nostalgia of old Facebook photos. Director Richard Linklater plays Olivia against father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a divorced couple who cross paths time after time as they each seek their own fulfillment in other partners. Children Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) follow Olivia from home to home in a fugitive cycle, tenaciously holding on to their family despite external circumstances and the unsavory cast of characters Olivia marries.
Texan Richard Linklater is masterful in his poignant use of reality, in all its awkwardness, its fleeting pain and joy. Treating the aspirations and obsessions of the 1990s, Linklater’s films often share “a concern with characters adrift. Everybody... is somebody in between, somebody who used to be a student or used to have a job, somebody who hasn’t quite figured out what he’s going to do with his life” (Rick Barton, “Grunge Cinema: Five by Three for X,” The Cresset, December 1994). Progression turns hollow in the face of disturbance and pain, in the realization that life cannot be contained in a lapse of grief, nor rest in happiness too long. His characters often seem to be stunned at moments into clarity, to then be lost again as they wage a futile battle with time. Think of Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, the story of an impulsive, hazy, all-nighter that is underlain with the knowledge that the moment will end, that dawn will come and the party will fade into a mythic past. A moment is ephemeral, undecided in the face of the constant, and distinctly human, push for control. Linklater finally leaves the essence of growth, of what a boy- or girl-hood is, at the potency of a moment.
Cinema often serves as a distraction from reality, but Boyhood can’t necessarily fulfill this purpose because it draws from the very grains of sand which comprise reality: endless seconds and moments of lives. Linklater’s style revels in detail: the warmth with which a mother strokes her son’s straw-like hair, the “likes” and adolescent colloquialisms of Mason, a point-of-view shot as Hawke unzips to put out a campfire the “old-fashioned way.” The movie is idiosyncratic in its span of creation: over twelve years the cast and crew gathered for weeks at a time to film. This allowed Linklater time for reflection as a writer, to respond to and include details of his actors’ lives as they aged with their characters. The dialogue, some of which is drawn directly from real-life conversations actor Ellar Coltrane had with girls at parties, is rehearsed, beaten in until it aligns with the rhythm of reality. This is not to say it was spontaneous or improvised—Linklater rehearses his actors with vigor—but that there is a kind of reality that cannot be merely taped as documentary. Hand-filmed segments are necessarily limiting because they lack the effortful illusion of cinema. The director must allow the performances to appear as natural, human, and poignant as possible. More remarkable is the ability of these actors to both draw from their own experiences of aging, and to see their previous work edited and refined as reference before performing further scenes. The film becomes a theater of life, performance after performance, each responding to the last. You can’t help but grow with the characters and invest in their lives.
Boyhood finds its greatest potency in reminding us that there is art in the moments that make up our lives. That—with each turn—from the first lost tooth to the first gray hair, there is some abiding enchantment. Too often the transitions, the ephemera of our lives, are cut away like lengthy hair to leave those few snapshots which lay framed behind glass. And sometimes we humans forget the art of living. It is easy to forget, say, the significance of a child’s haircut, cleanly shifting appearance for a time, or the first scintillations of interest between two teenagers, shared in a walk or awkward conversation. Each moment passes by, streaks backwards with millions of other routine moments, stockpiled or dumped in our collective memories.
How, for example, can I not connect to my own youth? And doesn’t this seem like Linklater’s purpose, to draw us not merely into the rosy memory of nostalgia but to re-member, to confront the formative and often painful moments? As Mason’s stepfather takes him to get his hair cut—“your hair makes you look like a girl”—the barber’s Longhorns cap and shirt with old trucks make a painful caricature. Mason sits in the chair, hair drooping over his eyes as the barber goes to his age-old task. New stepfather Bill stands watching, lips pressed, belly pushed out and arms crossed confidently above. It’s a massacre. You can see it in Mason’s eyes afterward, the shock of losing an identifier, something which distinguishes and allows autonomy in at least that regard.
But this scene is moreover important in how it is echoed, indeed reified so many times over a child’s boy-or-girl-hood. The father figure, otherwise fearing that his own manhood will be questioned, becomes a mouthpiece for unseen rules of gender. Manhood is displayed by not sticking out, and short hair fulfills normativity by not being noticeable; later in life Mason deliberately contradicts these norms by wearing purple nail polish and sporting an earring. Androgyny becomes a weapon against relentless stepfathers who resort to a one-track power trip: the I’m-the-one-who-pays-the-bills. It also reflects the kind of cultural androgyny toward which fashion and appearance shifted in the 1990s, think blue jeans and flannel for instance. I was struck, not by the eerie ease with which I could replace Mason with myself, and Bill with my own father, but by how I still felt the pang of discomfort, the vague feeling that perhaps I am still measured under these constraints. Boyhood for Linklater is a schema in which gender, like identity, is unfixed, constantly navigated through life, and perhaps unknowable.
It is easy to start consuming the film, to eat up the moments almost voyeuristically. The camera in this sense is very intimate with its characters, growing with them over the twelve years of the film. At times, it takes the place of an absent father, looking over its shoulder to the fighting siblings in the back seat as mother Olivia implores “Okay, we’re going to play a game: Whoever can stay quiet the longest wins. And, go!” Or it nudges up to Mason’s face, reveling in the awkwardness of half-formed thoughts and conversations with girls. At its most revealing, it hovers tenderly above Mason in bed with girlfriend Sheena before a roommate walks in and disturbs the scene. The viewer pulls back with the camera, tingling with the awkwardness of the situation.
At its best, the camera allows close-ups in which micro-expressions reveal human experience (a credit to the actors). The viewer reads a character’s face as if in conversation herself, reminded of conversations in which each actor—in life—tries to get past the façade of another, to something more human. Sometimes it is unwanted, as Mason (often a stand-in for the camera, a silent observer) notices looks between his mother and men she meets. Here we see a look of perplexity, the child’s undesired experience of the thought that a mother might be dateable, attractive even. Poet Allison Joseph sums it up better than pop psychology: “Did you want to know that your parents were human too?”
How poignant, then, that Mason’s mother keeps falling into the same flawed cycle of new home and new husband who turns to alcohol, as her two children continue to age. This “character drift” is often a linchpin of Linklater’s characterization, a vague awareness that there is something terribly important to be found in a moment, an experience, or late at night, drifting within a black haze. But then the character wakes up, the next day has arrived, and that haze—and its accompanying mystery—has vanished with the routine light of morning. Ultimately, Arquette’s character breaks down as she helps Mason pack for college and realizes a new emptiness of her surroundings: “I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now?”
What happens, Linklater questions, in that push, in that demand to know, control, and live in a steady beyond, a future always one step ahead of the present? For Olivia, life becomes a series of losses: “I’ve spent the first half of my life acquiring all this stuff. Now I’m going to spend the next half getting rid of it all.” Artifacts do, after all, populate the movie. A birthday shotgun, a carefully-curated mix cd, a handle of Tito’s Vodka hid behind laundry detergent. Each object becomes a representation of desire, material fulfillment at surface level, but too often a sign of emptiness.
The potency revives in the final scenes, a heavy expectancy that gilds the fresh nervousness of Mason going to college. He meets his roommate, accepting an offer to go hike the rust red hills of a nearby park with his roommate’s girlfriend, and her roommate Nicole. Clearly a set-up. Mason and Nicole hang back, discussing how moments of life seize or are seized. With alarming clarity, Mason describes that in fact, they are always in the moment. Mason, who appears so lost to adult characters who question his identity, his drive, and his obedience to societal standards seems to emerge. Through the haze of a life half-lived, the view through the window beckons. Linklater uses the landscape of Texas—and a distinctly adrift family—to remind his viewers that life is rich with the present, even while so many films urge us to distraction, to escape. So Mason and Nicole sit atop sunset-crowned boulders as the conversation continues... and halts in awkward, warm moments of interest. “What next,” we wonder, as Mason stares searchingly into the eyes of this new companion. “What next?”
Gregory Maher is a writer living in Chicago. He covers art and architecture for KNSTRCT Magazine, and contributes to The Seen contemporary art magazine.