“All the clocks in the city
Began to whir, and chime.
Oh, let not time deceive you,
You can not conquer time.
In headaches and in worry,
Vaguely life leaks away.
And time will have its fancy,
Tomorrow, or today.”
– As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden. Quoted in Before Sunrise
Close your eyes. It may be difficult now, but remember second grade. What did you do in your lunch break? (I played Star Wars with the boys, even though I hadn’t seen the films. My role was to sit up a tree and be Princess Leia). What was one of the most memorable things to happen at school that year? (Someone changing the Internet Explorer desktop icon to what I realised, years later, was the F-word).
Over the past few months of Boyhood’s quick ascention from “will it come out this year or not?”, to earning raves at Sundance, taking an early front seat in the Oscar race (which is something I am incredibly excited yet dreading to watch), lately the praise has flipped to criticism for reviewers identifying on a personal level with it too much, and talking about themselves too much. That reviews are supposed to be objective.
This idea of being told to not say what moved me about a film, of being told how to review something? That’s something I have a serious issue with. I mean, I don’t know about you guys, but why do I review films? Because I love them. Because they touch my life. Because, to quote Brit Marling (because quoting Brit is always an excellent idea), they’ve “made the loneliness more bearable.” I’m not writing someone else’s opinion or a consensus in my reviews, it’s MY opinion. It’s what I, myself, with my 19 years of life, think about the film, what it says. And if that’s something deeply personal, that’s awesome.
Brit Marling in the Little White Lies ‘Another Earth’ issue, 2011.
In fact, I think the strong personal reactions brought about by Boyhood are an incredible strength of the film. Why? Because you only get these kinds of reactions, these stories like those I told at the beginning, these connections when the film is not over sentimental or manipulative, but when it strikes such a chord, something so raw, buried so deep, that maybe you didn’t realise was there, or meant so much.
Writer-director Richard Linklater has always been fascinated with time in his work (I mean, he made a fantastic trilogy with the time of day in each title), and continues to be, but Boyhood elevates it to a much more extreme, new height. Where his previous films have centered on the short-form, moment-to-moment route, Boyhood is an experiment on how regardless of how much time we’re given, whether the narrative is set over 12 hours or 12 years we’re always constrained and shaped by time, it informs so many of our actions. Boyhood in fact goes through some interesting stages similar to the Before trilogy – like the beginning is whimsical and fantasy and almost naive, then the middle is cynical and life has passed you by and sad and then the end is starting anew, it may not be perfect but you’re happy.
From the moment the first song plays through the speakers, you’re immediately transported back to 2002. You’re in a time warp. Tears sting your eyes. You’re not even a fan of Coldplay. It feels like yesterday. And the best part? It WAS in the moment, this is not hindsight or being nostalgic about the early 2000s 12 years after the fact. This is now. Linklater’s not looking back to when it was made, he’s going through it at the time of production. He has a real eye for what ended up sticking.
But for all the in-the-moment feelings though, Boyhood does maintain some ground, and some excellent interpretation, in the concept of memory, and how what we remember is not all the ‘landmark’ moments. The earlier scenes are shorter, they’re not as textured or vivid or large in scope. There aren’t as many characters, and, at least for the first two or so years, it feels almost dream-like in its gazing up at the clouds on a clear afternoon as a classic song plays.
“I remember childhood as this magical time.” – Jesse, Before Sunrise
It’s this de-emphasis on the ‘big’ moments, the omission of the easy route of the first kiss, the first dance and the expounding on important realistions and abstract moments, changes in mind that everyone reaches that makes Linklater’s warts-and-all portrait of childhood so universal, so visceral, and so deeply personal. Why? Because not everyone experiences those moments that we’ve been led to believe by coming-of-age films, and if they do, they don’t happen in the Hollywood way. We do, however, remember those moments where we realise that our parents are actually humans, or when suddenly, the little things matter. That promise your dad made you when you were nine suddenly means the world. We don’t necesserarily remember the ‘big’ things, we remember what we see as important, which can turn out to be the oddest things. It’s like how I remember turning the radio on at the same time each day to hear Don’t Stop Moving by S Club 7, but not a whole lot about graduation, which was under a year ago.
What unfolds over nearly 3 hours is time-lapse photography. Life unfurls in its purest form. But don’t be turned off by the length. Why? Because it flies by as fast as your own childhood did, in a series of haircuts, dinners, conversations, and other small moments that don’t feel large, but are in fact slipping away like sand in an hourglass. As time moves on, with some irressible emotional hooks that create unexpectedly very emotional moments, you feel it slip away, clinging onto something about your own life you find in a scene. Radioactive? I go back to 2011, when I was immersed in the Glee fandom and enjoyed I Am Number Four as much as the next Dianna Agron fan. Cue crying from me.
Except, this time, you’re observing it through someone else. You feel that you truly know them. It’s like watching the kid next door or a sibling or a cousin grow up – they seem to be little forever, and then one day, you turn around, and see that (the scene that dealt with this is particularly excellent):
1. They are now a teenager, and
2. How old does that make you?
The passage of time is something that is always bound to draw strong emotions. Some wish it passed faster to get to a certain point, others yearn for it to slow down. Regardless, it’s littered with memories and relics and an ever present feeling best articulated by Olivia (Arquette) in one of the film’s most hard-hitting scenes: “I thought there’d be more.”
It’s something we all feel, in a variety of situations. Growing up is a big thing, 12 years is a long time. Hell, five years feels like an incredibly long time away. But, five years ago I was starting high school…and I’m now at university. What gives? I feel no different! In the moment, it feels like you have time. That whatever’s coming is a long way off, and you have plenty of time to achieve the things you want to before it rolls around… But suddenly you’re there. It’s the end. What once looked like a very long time is gone. It’s over. The 3-hour long movie is finished. Nothing marks time more than watching someone age in 3 hours. It’s heightened. You’re suddenly not in year 8 anymore, you’re finishing high school. You’re not 13, you’re now 18. You look back. Wasn’t there supposed to be more? It was five years, hasn’t more supposed to have happened by now? Why didn’t I treasure it more? Where did time go, how did it get away from me like that?
By the end, you definitely are in Olivia’s shoes. In some years of Boyhood, Mason doesn’t change much. You can’t tell the difference between one year and another, not really. Life’s going slowly. Particularly at primary school, I remember feeling that years went on forever. The time between term 1 and term 4 felt like a generation, dragging on with endless days of work, reading and fun, before reaching the hotly anticipated final days, in the middle of summer, with Christmas activities, board games and general madness (one year, when Hairspray had just come out, we acted out the entire movie in ten minutes for a few classes. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had). Years actually felt like years. The time between birthdays felt like a build up, that it took a long time to reach one year older was hotly anticipated. But then primary school finished. The film reaches around year 9, and suddenly, everything moves in leaps. One minute it’s the first day, next minute it’s the last. The sections may be longer, but time’s moving faster, Mason’s changing faster, one year having short hair, and the next having the classic ‘hair in my eyes’ look from about 2008.
But you know what one of the coolest things about Boyhood is? It’ll mean different things at different points. Different events will hit harder depending on age. For instance, a breakup didn’t hit me particularly hard right now. But that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. If you’re a parent, it’ll feel as though you’re reliving the experience. If you’re not, I think you get a pretty good idea of what it feels like to be one. Depending on the point you are at in life, I feel that it’ll continue to evolve and mean different things, which is something much more rewarding than many films can achieve. But then, what does it mean to me at this point in time, in addition to the universal idea of time slipping away? Much has been said about it, but it’s one of those films that brings us together, and reminds us why we do what we do. As a kid you constantly put yourself into the them and us. At school you’re a nerd, a slacker, a popular kid, a kid that hates parties or goes to any one you possibly can. You’re a rebel, or you’re uptight. You’re introverted, extroverted, someone that has millions of friends and follows every trend or doesn’t care. You’re always put into a box, distinguished from everyone else in a variety of ways. But Boyhood makes you realise that everyone is more alike than different. You may run in different circles, but at the end of the day, you’ve had relatively the same experience. You all knew every word to Oops, I Did It Again when you were six, remember where you were when certain events that have changed the whole world happened, remember that period in about 2008 where everyone either dyed their hair or had a haircut where you couldn’t see.
But above all, Boyhood is a sum of its parts. It may have been sewn together over 12 years, but it’s ultimately one tapestry of life that you can’t unpick and examine year-by-year. Zal Batmanglij once said that “the pleasure of really getting to know someone is immeasurable”.
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij at the 2013 Traverse City Film Festival. Batmanglij talks about how it feels to get to know someone intensely for a long time.
And I tend to agree – just having that window to observe is fascinating. By the end of the 3 hours, you feel that you truly know Mason. Especially if you’re like me, who is the exact same age as mason or thereabouts, your connection to this film is instant, it will play extremely well for you. It’s your life, playing on screen. Some events may be different, but it’s your life. Your songs, your video games. I even found little things that I have in my house in the film. It’s hard to review, it’s hard to not get personal because it gets to the heart of so many lives.
Linklater’s beautiful explorations of relationships and simple but complex connections are known for their hyper realism, loving ideas and conversations. The long takes, expanses of dialogue that closely resemble our most banal, rambling but fascinating conversations, Linklater’s style is a distinctive one that has only gotten stronger as time has gone on, something that is a particularly fascinating idea that the film exhibits. Like any of his films, the emotional payoff is not rushed or desperate. It’s an emotional roller coaster that offers hints of its disarming power in the cinema, but when you mull over it for days and days and listen to the soundtrack with tears streaming down your face (it’s the only time I’ll cry when Soulja Boy plays), it hits you, hard. It’s not visually spectacular, showy or thrilling, but it sneaks up on you, cutting deeper than you’d immediately think and offering a constant return on your investment of time.
Watching years fly by as effortlessly do as in real life is easily one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on screen. Boyhood isn’t photographable moments, as most of the things we remember aren’t photographable. It’s the life between the photographs, between the moments that we expect, it’s life unexpected and spontaneous. It’s a gift, a time capsule to the kids and parents of the 90s. It’s the kids that, for a brief time, are your best friend, and then you never see them again. It’s the box of childhood books you read again once in a while with a tear in your eye, the Game Boy that you play again for an afternoon. You forget about them, but then you look around, and you remember.
P.S. Totally the same girl.