Through Boyhood, filmmaker Richard Linklater not only shows us in a consistent way the process of childhood towards the end of adolescence, but also manages to build a story full of conflicts and obstacles demonstrating not only his mastery in storytelling but also using these devices as a showcase of how these obstacles both impede and advance human life towards self-knowledge and discernment of a very simple premise, no one knows what they are really doing!
I’ m sure that if I were at the box office of a movie theater and someone asked me, “Do you want to see a movie about the development of a child from infancy to late adolescence? My immediate response would be “but there’s another one about dinosaurs that shoot laser beams out of their eyes!”. How wrong would I be!!! Well I don’t know actually, that laser dinosaur movie sounds good! What I mean is that perhaps the process of a child growing up is not a very interesting tagline from an advertising point of view, neither is this idea of shooting a movie over the course of 12 years, at least not for me initially (although the film it’s certainly a titanic and beautiful achievement). I would even go so far as to say that Linklater has gone beyond the typical American flick on so many levels that the average pop corn devourer may find no way to connect with this story. Themes such as abusive parents, an unstable home, drugs and alcohol as social anesthesia, and the search for identity abound in the 2 hours and 46 minutes of this monumental portrait of the life of an ordinary, but intensely special kid.
Characters abound in this story, but let’s go with the main ones, the nuclear family composed of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) who are the children of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke). Apparently Ethan Hawke’s character doesn’t have a name, LOL. The film starts with the breakup between the two parents, mostly because Dad still prefers to hang out with friends and have a good time, while Olivia is more concerned with being with her kids. This leads to a time lapse where Dad completely disappears from the lives of the children and Olivia, a crucial moment for the rest of the story, as it deeply impacts with the initial desire of Mason, the main character of the film, which is to live with his father and mother together. From the very beginning we see how Mason’s wishes are cut short again and again because of this breakup. Forced to leave his home and his first friend without even being able to say goodbye. Being forced to live with a surrogate father, a violent alcoholic who ends up beating his mother and provoking a second breakup (and then a third) that will bring us closer to one of the most important revelations at the end of the film, that life is very much about letting go.
The form of the conflict is simple in concept, Mason is a child who cannot do what he wants, he is forced to follow the orders of parents, grandmother, teachers and all kinds of adults who impose again and again a truth over his own, the one he saw clearly in the first sequence of the film and that he recovers and reaffirms in the last sequence, that life is only the present and that there is no control over it, but the other way around. In this sense it is extremely interesting the dramatic construction that leads us to this last self revelation of the character, especially because during the first half of the film Mason simply suffers because of others while he finds spaces where to be himself, essentially spaces free of adults. At the same time, adults appear as imposing beings in need of attention, especially characters like Mason’s father, but also some teachers and even some older kids, trying to lecture younger kids and inevitably delivering lousy advice.
During the midpoint of the story we encounter Mason’s first rebellion in the concrete pursuit of a desire that takes him out of the family in which he is immersed and prepares him for what is to come, a life outside it. I refer to the sequence of his birthday, where he prefers to spend time with friends and enjoying the moment with his girlfriend. After this begins the slow process of learning to leave behind the past, childhood and childish things, to launch himself into the future, at which point the movie ends! The more Mason moves towards understanding that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how things are, the more we see how the rest of the characters fail or get it wrong in comparison to himself and how he himself becomes increasingly immune to outside opinions. All of this culminates in two sequences leading up to the end of the story. Take it as the final confrontation with his father and then his mother. The father (Ethan Hawke) sequence is interesting in the tough love sense, Mason wants some paternal compassion one last time, but Dad greets him with a couple of truths about life, mainly that it’s a mistake to subject your self-worth to the opinions of others and that taking control of your life is the only thing that allows you to find meaning in existence. Then, with the mother, Mason faces the consequences of leaving the past behind, childhood, represented in the crying of the mother, who confesses that her whole life has been little more than a few steps she has taken without really thinking about it and that taking care of her children was the only thing that really made sense to her.
Past both of the previously described sequences, Mason makes his way down the road in search of his own place, and finally finds it in the conversation with a college girl in the middle of the mountains. What is it? Well, that what Mason felt at the beginning of the story looking up at the clouds is the only truth in his life, that moments pass and take us, that people have no greater control over them and that he himself was fine all along. And so it is that the 12-year journey of filming concludes, the same way it began, as a series of moments that chronicle a conflict, that present a series of complications and desires, but that ultimately produce no change but a reunion.