The Weight of Quiet Moments: On “Boyhood”

The critical consensus regarding Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which saw a limited release in theaters last weekend, has been universally, overwhelmingly positive.  “I’m not saying Boyhood is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now,” New York Magazine’s David Edelstein wrote in his critique of the film.

High praise for a movie that has no ostensible plot.  Boyhood follows the life of a young child named Mason as he grows up in Texas with his divorced mother and father.  Linklater filmed Boyhood over the course of 12 years, spending a few days annually with the cast and crew to edit the script and shoot new scenes.  As a result, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow from a pudgy kid into a slim young man over the course of two and a half hours.

The film does not traffic in most Hollywood clichés or plot devices.  Individual scenes are, for the most part, composed of quiet moments and routine occurrences.  Mason plays video games, fights with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), falls in love, and gets a job.  He’s forced to move and picked on by other kids at school.  He celebrates a birthday and graduates high school.  Photography begins to pique his interest.   At the end of the film, he leaves for college.

The focus on Mason’s maturation is juxtaposed with a close look at the choices his parents make and the consequences of their decisions and circumstances.   Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is an absentee father as the film opens, chasing his misspent youth in Alaska.  His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) endures a series of sour and occasionally violent marriages.  Olivia, Mason Jr., and Samantha spend good chunks of the movie just getting by.

Linklater complements these tribulations with momentous events and equal measures of happiness.  Mason Sr. returns to Texas and eventually settles down with a family of his own.  Olivia obtains her degree and becomes a successful college professor.  Genuinely hilarious scenes, such as Mason Sr.’s conscription of his children to post Obama 2008 signs around the community, are generously peppered throughout.

Coltrane’s portrayal of Mason is remarkable, but the film is arguably more reliant on Hawke and Arquette as the two major fulcrums that determine what Mason’s boyhood entails.  They are magnificent.  Both poignantly capture the difficulties and joys of becoming a responsible parent and adult.  Arquette, in particular, deserves Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress consideration for her work.  Hers is a stunning, forceful depiction of multitudes of strength: raising two children by herself, going back to school while working, triumphing over abusive relationships, and, ultimately, letting her children go.

This strong character development alone is enough to make Boyhood memorable, but ascribing it life-changing properties a la Edelstein might strike some as a stretch.  How could a film without any particular action or dramatic narrative arc create such resonance?

For me, the answer came in the cumulative wash of Boyhood’s individual moments of normalcy and routine.  Watching the film in real time focuses the viewer’s attention on small plot sketches and cosmetic changes that connect each period of Mason’s life: how will his new haircut be received?  What will become of his interest in photography?  It’s only when the end credits roll that the enormity and significance of the preceding scenes become apparent- it’s easy to forget you’re watching a decade of growth in the course of two and a half hours.  To fully grasp how those individual quiet moments come together to create a full life is achingly beautiful and almost overwhelming.

To that end, I left the theater with two distinct impressions: a keen sense of how my own body, mind, and spirit had changed since I was a boy, and an appreciation for other people (parents, in particular) that I’ve never really felt after consuming a piece of art.  Boyhood prompts the viewer to recognize that mundane and regular moments are a shared experience and that all people are in the middle of their own narrative of normalcy.  Seeing Mason and his family evolve and change is an exercise in immense empathy; you come to realize the commonalities of your own joys, sorrows, and appreciation of moments both large and inconsequential.  And after the film, it is almost shockingly clear how Mason Jr., Olivia, or Samantha could be any random person on the street.

It is a wonderful movie, filled with small joys, deeply resonant moments, and the gorgeous backdrop of warm Texas landscapes.  Highly recommended.

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