Boyhood is a personal movie, so let’s get personal for a minute. With his first film, Slacker, Richard Linklater changed the way I saw movies. I was 12, and it blew my mind that you could make a movie that was so cool and interesting and have absolutely no story. And it wasn’t snobby either. It wasn’t a movie about aesthetic appreciation. It was filled with people I felt like I knew, and they were talking like the people around me. And even without a story, it felt like it mattered. I immediately showed it to my two best friends who both hated it for the same reasons I loved it, and I feel like a lot of people have probably had the same experience with Boyhood.
Since Slacker was first released, Linklater has refined his vision and embraced traditional narrative structures, but the far more accessible Boyhood still draws the same criticism Slacker did more than 20 years ago. So this article is written for people who felt like they connected with the movie and not really for the people who roll their eyes and call the movie boring and/or gimmicky. By the way I’m totally sympathetic to the boring argument. I’ve tried with Terrence Malick, but I just can’t get into him. (Please forgive me Malick devotees.) Boyhood did not bore me. It invigorated me.
With all that in mind, here are some things to think about with regards to the movie. [SPOILERS AHEAD!]
1. Linklater's Obsession with Time & Aging
Much has been made of Boyhood’s 12-year shooting schedule. It runs counter to so many things we know about the movie industry, and seems like a Herculean task. Together with the Before Sunrise trilogy, it stands as the most obvious proof of Linklater’s ongoing interest in exploring time and aging. But look at his other movies. Suburbia is about the ennui that comes with transitioning into adulthood. Tape finds three high school friends digging through a traumatic moment more than 10 years past. In Dazed and Confused, Linklater recreated his own high school years while the very act of making Bad News Bears found him looking back at his childhood and his baseball days.
Slacker and Waking Life do something else interesting with time. Slacker gives us the briefest of encounters with each of its characters, inviting us to extrapolate from those vignettes what each character's life might be like the rest of the time. It's like the opposite of Boyhood. Waking Life gives us an epic journey that all takes place inside a lucid dream that could be taking place in just a few moments.
2. Remember Truffaut
Long before Linklater thought to make a movie spanning 12 years of one boy's life, French director Francois Truffaut made four features and a short film with the same actor playing the same character over a 20-year period. The first movie was The 400 Blows (1959), which followed a rebellious kid trying to find his place in the world. It's regularly placed on those "Greatest Movies of All Time" lists, and while it isn't exactly autobiographical, the kid in the movie, Antoine Doinel, had a lot in common with Truffaut.
The director went on to make three more features and a short film about Antoine, and each time he was played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. The audience watched as both Antoine and the actor playing him grew into adulthood before their eyes. Linklater has dutifully dropped Truffaut's name in many of his recent interviews, noting that it's too bad Truffaut died prematurely at the age of 54 because it would have been interesting to see how far he would have taken us into Antoine's life.
3. The Ways People Enter and Exit Our Lives
Boyhood stays true to the abruptness of real relationships. Characters enter the family's life with little discussion and disappear just as suddenly. When Patricia Arquette's character gathers up Mason and his sister, Samantha, and runs out on their increasingly abusive and alcoholic stepdad, Samantha is upset that they left so quickly. All their clothes and their things and their relationships were left behind when they pulled away from that house. She asks, "Will we ever see them again?" Her mom replies, "I don't know." They don't. Later, after Arquette finds herself remarried to an Iraq war veteran, he starts to act like a jerk to Mason, and without any explanation he's gone in the next scene.
In real life we often don't get a chance to resolve our relationships before they end. They can end without us even realizing it. It isn't traumatic. It's life. Sometimes that sucks, and sometimes everyone knows it's for the best. But Boyhood accurately reflects the ease with which people slide into and out of our lives.
4. No ONe's About to Die in This Picture
We've been trained to expect certain things in movies, and Boyhood takes advantage of those expectations in two scenes. The first comes when Mason goes to a "camp out" that's really just some kids sleeping at an unfinished house, drinking beer, talking about sex (even though they don't know anything about sex), and throwing saw blades at a piece of sheetrock. Linklater says he's seen people tense up while watching the scene, thinking, "Oh this is where it all goes down." But nothing happens. It's just some kids goofing off and being dumb and there aren't really any major consequences to it, just like real life. Think for a moment about all the dumb things you've done that didn't send someone to the hospital. This is just one of those times.
The second moment comes when Mason is driving with his girlfriend and starts checking his text messages. We've been trained to expect a car crash every time someone gets distracted while driving in a movie, but Boyhood is more honest than that. It's not saying it's okay to text and drive. It's just saying people don't crash EVERY time they do it. Again it's a scene that makes people tense up and brace for impact, but again, just like in real life, nothing happens.
5. How Autobiographical Is Boyhood?
Richard Linklater has been forthcoming about Boyhood's autobiographical elements. But it's not just autobiographical for him. It also incorporates the real lives of the actors, who were invited to help Linklater shape the story as it went along. Here's a rundown of some of the details taken from real life.
6. No One Is Improvising Here
While Linklater left his movie open to a few changes, he didn't improvise the movie as he went along. "It's always an insult when people think we improvised," he told Rolling Stone. "Real talk would be horrible." In an interview with IndieWire, Arquette said Linklater achieved "the perfect balance of structure and openness" with his approach to the 12-year shoot.
So how did he do it? Linklater says he started with a loose working script with bullet points for each character's story arc. He went over these with the actors and talked to them about their own lives to try and get a sense of how to tweak their characters. After that he wrote the script in sections. He knew where he was going from the beginning, but each year, when they would get back together, Linklater would re-interview the cast and write that year's section of the movie. Sometimes he'd be up late the night before they were scheduled to start shooting a section, finalizing that year's shooting script. Ethan Hawke told Chris Hardwick the only moment in the whole movie that was truly improvised was a brief exchange he and Ellar Coltrane had about the Star Wars prequels while camping.
7. Musical Timestamps
Boyhood uses music that dates the movie on purpose, so we can get an idea of when the scenes are taking place. Richard Linklater told Time he was trying to use "songs of the time" to evoke the sense of nostalgia he wanted.
"Everything in the movie is attached to something real," he said. "It all kind of happened in some form or fashion. I wanted the same with the music. I wanted to hear, 'I just broke up with my girlfriend and I was driving in a car and that song came on the radio and it made me feel like everything was okay.' That means something to me, that somebody somewhere had an emotional experience with that song. I didn’t want songs that no one had an opinion about."
Here's a rundown of a few of the many songs we hear and the year it's supposed to be in the movie when we hear them. You can find a much longer breakdown of the songs in the movie here.
8. “I just thought there would be more."
If one quote can sum up the entire movie, this is it. Near the end, Patricia Arquette's character is sitting at the kitchen table as Mason gathers his things to go away to college. The moment leaves her reflecting on the events of her life and noting that her next big landmark will be her own funeral. She tears up and admits, "I just thought there would be more." So did we. We expected more from this movie, but Boyhood is the rare gem that succeeds by delivering less. It's just a family's life, and it turns out that's enough.