“I thought there would be more to it.”
This is what Mason’s mother says toward the end of the film when it becomes apparent that her son is no longer a child. Part-metaphor, part-criticism, it’s a subtle moment when the film acknowledges itself through the irony of such a literal interpretation, a reference to the unfiltered experience it provides. Because the narrative can at times be plain, offering moments from childhood that are both familiar and clichéd. In many ways, “Boyhood” connects these clichés to show that they are not isolated from one another. They happen at almost every stage of life; whether it be Mason getting bullied or having his first beer; talking about sex with his father, breaking up with his first girlfriend, etc. It’s like a sequence of events that become more obvious as the story progresses. That’s not really the most important aspect of the film. Instead, what we experience is the scale and magnitude of the story. This is a technical achievement, a time capsule that provides a portrait of childhood and the last twelve years of our culture in a way that somehow feels more intimate. In many instances, it was moving just to see images from the past, pop-culture references that we may have forgotten or simply overlooked. Mason’s childhood is almost secondary from this perspective. He just happens to be our frame of reference, which is what the film awkwardly, yet purposefully explains in the very last scene: the moment is continually seizing upon the characters. However, the concept of developing a story around the same child for his entire childhood places everything in such a unique context that we are more aware of the overall significance. Of course, this is still a Linklater film, which means there are quasi-philosophical conversations along with the director’s affable sense of humor. There is even an extended shot of Mason talking to a girl as she rides her bicycle that is borrowed from a nearly identical scene found in the Before series. And a few more subtle aspects as well, such as the profile shots of Mason’s face at different times during his childhood. They remind us that the six-year old in the beginning of the film and the eighteen-year old at the end have the same contour. And as Mason changes and adapts to the process, these are the details that shouldn’t be taken for granted. For that reason, it’s possible to imagine the second or even third viewing of “Boyhood” to be more affecting than the first. It makes more sense to lament Mason’s childhood when we know the man that he will grow up to be. We might even prefer the curious and innocent child to the brooding and confused adult. Either way, the film has more variables than a typical narrative and so its meaning will have to be reinterpreted every so often in order to more fully appreciate the experience (look out for future essays). Though if we’re being honest with ourselves, especially when it comes to the initial viewing, the film is actually pretty underwhelming in and of itself. I would still argue, however, that this is also one of its more endearing qualities. “Boyhood” is overrated in the sense that childhood is overrated. It’s a very ordinary nostalgia that doesn’t try to compensate for any lack of experience. Even towards the end, I have to admit that the film drags a bit (and that’s after more than two hours, so it’s not just fatigue). This explains why Mason’s high school graduation party creates such a feeling of restlessness: there just isn’t much more to say. What comes next doesn’t matter as much as it used to. For the last half hour of the film, we stop exploring his innocence and the film becomes part of a different narrative that bleeds into adulthood. Again, the film doesn’t try to alter our perceptions, but rather it helps to manage our expectations during this transition. As I mentioned in a previous essay, “Boyhood” is a film that struggles with its own perfection and the context in which it must be interpreted. It’s the kind of film that brings us closer to and further from childhood at the same time–revisiting the past without attaching ourselves to one particular perspective.
–N. David Pastor