Richard Linklater (2014)
MY YOUNGEST DAUGHTER, a recent college graduate, moved out of our house—her childhood home—into her first apartment this week. I am thrilled for her, a little sad for me. Her passage into adult life seems like an auspicious time to be writing about Boyhood, which brilliantly and poignantly follows the trajectory of a child’s path from wide-eyed six-year-old to contemplative eighteen-year-old. Director Richard Linklater shot the film over the course of twelve years, so we watch the characters age, change, and evolve. It’s something like a time-lapse photo of a life, the closest thing to a lived life that film has yet to capture.
I have seen the movie six times, which, with its three-hour duration, accounts for the better part of a day. At times I identify with young Mason (played endearingly by Ellar Coltrane) as he finds his way along the sometimes-rocky trail to adulthood. Other times I empathize most with his mother, Olivia, winningly played by Patricia Arquette. She stumbles her way to wisdom, making some serious mistakes along the way.
Lest you think me a time-wasting fanatic, let me explain: I didn’t watch it consecutively. I saw it first at a film festival, then several months later again before reviewing it for USA Today. Shortly thereafter, I rewatched it to conduct a Q&A with Linklater, and another time to moderate a discussion with Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason’s father. My fifth viewing came as I prepared to write an essay for the best-director prize I was giving Linklater at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards ceremony. The last time was with the daughter who just moved out. She wasn’t as moved by it as I was. It was too male-centric for her. I saw the universal human condition, filtered through the often-mystified eyes of a child.
To me the film is about the process of finding and becoming one’s true self. It’s about how we grow and develop and learn how to cope with change—our own, that of those we love, and some that feels inexplicable and forced upon us. We take one step forward, two steps back, and maybe a few sideways. We trip and fall and get back up. Life is not linear, plot-driven, or thematic. Boyhood captures all that complexity in its quiet, unassuming way.
The movie is three hours long, but I could watch it for another thirty-three. I could have watched the rest of Mason’s journey until he took his last breath on his deathbed and been no less captivated. His story is not just about coming of age. It is about the ineffable beauty of being human. It is about being a child and also about parenting one, with all the accompanying joy and pain and everything in between.
Seeing Boyhood for the first time at its very first public screening at Sundance, I was so entranced, so moved and energized that I wondered if perhaps the altitude had affected me. Then came those five additional viewings—something I’ve never done with any drama since becoming a critic fifteen years ago—and I felt the same way every time. It wasn’t the altitude. I could have seen it in Death Valley and felt that same lightheaded giddiness. I vividly remember walking out of that first screening at midnight into the chilly mountain air, discussing it excitedly with strangers on a bus. Then again, maybe it was the altitude. I felt spiritually elevated. And after each viewing, I’ve felt inspired in some way to be my best self.
I watch hundreds of films each year. And each year there are those special few that reaffirm my gratitude that I get to watch movies for a living. I love movies. But I can’t remember when a film that traffics in ordinary experiences has had this kind of effect on me. I felt changed after seeing it. I was so wholly caught up in the saga of another person that it seemed as if I had spent three hours living someone else’s life, watching events unfold from inside their skin. The film encourages our deepest sense of empathy. I was profoundly reassured when Mason ended up on his feet at the end. He’d found his people, and we knew he’d be all right. I shed tears of relief.
Boyhood inspires. It reasserts the value of wonder, human decency, and honest emotion as it charts the unpredictable arc of personal growth. Linklater’s dozen-year commitment to capturing the essence of a boy’s life was not only ingenious and thoroughly immersive, it reminds us why movies matter: they gird, reflect, and bolster our common humanity. They reinforce compassion.
Claudia Puig is president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a movie critic for NPR’s Film Week. She was USA Today’s film critic for fifteen years, and before that was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.