Really short summary: go see this movie!
Longer more thought-out review:
The premise of this movie is simple: Richard Linklater filmed portions over a span of years, working with the same actors as they grew older, to create a coming-of-age narrative centering around a boy and his family.
That project suggests hyper-specificity – an alternate title might have been Mason (it also would have followed Linklater’s recent Bernie). But the real title isn’t specific at all, and so the particular is unabashedly intended to represent the universal. That’s a risky move, especially considering the trend within the kind of left-leaning academia with which this film’s characters (and presumably its director) interact – the trend that is skeptical about grand meta-narratives, especially about grand meta-narratives about gender.
One of the many really fascinating things about this movie is the extent to which it was able to invoke that universal notion of boyhood, all the while placing it within a cultural context in such a way as to critique the very notion of the universality of the experience of “boyhood,” perhaps even suggest that what is universal is the need to subject such norms to critique. This is a movie about a boy that lives within a world that forces ideas of boyhood onto him and about how he navigates his way through that process, and suggests, more obliquely, that wrestling with those norms, culturally conditioned though they may be, is ultimately a universal experience.
But all that is rather abstract, and not what I most liked about the movie: let me approach it more concretely.
For nearly the entire three hour running time I was on the verge of tears. I’m not sure whether others experienced Boyhood this way, or whether that’s a feeling other people have in their everyday non-movie experiences. For me it’s one that strikes sometimes many times each day, but usually at least once. It often centers around listening to music, or reading a news story about an issue I feel very strongly about. But through the course of this movie, I was feeling that way the entire time.
I’ve wondered before if this feeling is a consequence of having grown up as a boy. “Boys don’t cry” is not a cliche this movie invokes explicitly, but it’s lingering in the background of its characters’ minds. In fact, the movies – sitting in the dark in movie theaters, often with my father – are one place I can consistently remember this feeling as a child. Whether it was Michael Moore’s montage of destroyed Flint city streets and the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t it Be Nice?” from Roger and Me, Matthew Broderick negotiating with a computer trying to destroy the world in Wargames, (more embarrassingly) Kevin Kostner’s closing statement to the jury in JFK, or again Matthew Broderick letting the monkeys out of their cages at the end of Project X: these were haunting. sad, scary, or idealistic film sequences during which, as a boy, I felt entirely at sea internally, but also felt an overwhelming norm that prevented me from ever externalizing that.
This movie was, among other things, a movie about that feeling, and so not only did I have it while watching, I was watching an exploration about the emotional life of a boy and his meeting with that overwhelming norm.
But that’s not the only norm considered. Another very big issue Mason confronts is the issue of work, career, and responsibility. He repeatedly receives unsolicited lectures (from stepfathers, bosses, teachers) all that run more or less like “you’re talented, you’re smart, but if you don’t work harder, none of that matters.” He always waits them out and rarely responds beyond simple pleasantries. It reminded me of a Richard Linklater quote written into REM’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” (a song I’ve come to see as being way better than I thought it was 20 years ago): “withdrawal in disgust’s not the same as apathy.”
I’ve got this habit when I’m watching a movie or a TV show, or listening to music, when it’s something I think isn’t that good. My mind drifts to other better but similar experiences I’ve had. I’m sitting through a boring Bruckner symphony and I start thinking how awesome it would be if instead it were Beethoven’s 9th. I’m watching Criminal Minds and thinking “God how much better was The Wire!” I’m listening to the Tragically Hip at the House of Blues and thinking I wish this was REM.
Watching this movie I had the opposite reaction. I was thinking “oh man, all those other movies I thought were good, they are way worse than this.” Ethan Hawke playing hide-and-seek with his kids around a sculpture, music playing, (brought full tears to my eyes (for the only time during the movie) – and it also (I’m almost afraid to say this) made Gene Hackman’s Royal-Tenenbaum-with-Ari-and-Uzi-Simon-and-Garfunkel montage feel almost distant and arch. One quick upward-panning shot of a Texas tree made me finally realize Terence Malick’s Tree of Life was pretentious and made me finally admit that those dinosaurs were absurd.
[A more fun Wes Anderson tie-in I was proud of myself for spotting – the woman who plays Mason Sr.’s new wife Annie – Jenni Tooley – is one of the country-club-ish girls from near the beginning of Bottle Rocket, the one who sits down next to Anthony and says “you’re really interesting aren’t you?” – again just 20 short years later…]
And I still have not said anything about the style in which the film is shot. One thought I had about halfway through the movie (weird that it hadn’t occurred to me sooner than that) was – this is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on film, and for our time. Now I’ve read that book 5, 6, 7 times, and that parallel is an obvious one, just based on the subject matter: an artistically inclined boy gradually grows older, confronts authority, develops his own aesthetic, has fleeting relationships with girls that don’t quite understand him….
But the parallel is more revealing at the level of style. Ever since I saw Slacker, in which there’s moment where someone is reading aloud from Ulysses, I’ve thought, there’s a Joycean in Linklater. I’ve never bothered to look that up but it seems like it must be true. Just the way Ulysses is built into Slacker is so Joycean in itself – it’s exactly how Joyce executes dozens of allusions. They have nothing to do with the narrative, they just happen in passing but somehow add to the fabric of the narrative nonetheless.
Portrait moves through the phase of Stephen Dedalus’s life more or less covered in Boyhood (though Portrait seems to start a little earlier). Its opening pages develop a set of motifs that will recur: Stephen’s extraordinary sensory perception, his parents’ friends’ political consciousness, his almost-fear mixed with worship of girls, and his capacity for guilty and embarrassment, and the self-incurred squalor within which his family exists.
Joyce’s style subtly bends through the course of the book’s five chapters, to trace what he called “the curve of an emotion.” Its prose style evolves with the consciousness and experience of its protagonist. What begins as baby talk moves steadily through nervous junior-high-ish social perceptions, a near-traumatic religious retreat, and then the gradual development of Stephen’s own writing voice, that takes the form of journal entries by the end.
How do you do that in film though? The camera style is (so far as I can tell) relatively similar through the course of Boyhood, but what happens is, just like with Joyce, deceptive in the seeming simplicity of its realism. In the first place – the gradual aging of the actors takes the place of the gradual stylistic adjustment of prose. They speak in older and older voices just inherently, which adds a sort of realism that makes a lot of other film look very artificial (think about how continual the old vs. the young Mason feels, as compared the old vs. young bellhop Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel, to pick an obviously extreme example).
The film is basically third-person. Mason is almost always on the screen, and so in that sense, it’s “third-person limited.” But where that category breaks down is I think of the film’s cleverer moves. At first I thought it was a weakness: there is a set of cultural cliches that pop in and out of this movie, mostly revolving around conservative America. They function partially as time-stamps to help the viewer. But they also felt a a first little too much like smug liberal self-assurances. There’s an angry Republican who threatens to shoot Mason when he’s campaigning for Obama in 2008, a set of step-relatives that give Mason a red-letter Bible and a 20-gauge shotgun, and on a more personal note, Mason’s sometime girlfriend sounds too stupid, to the point where someone like Mason wouldn’t have been interested in her in the first place.
At first I thought – theses little bits are awfully tin-eared within such a sensitive and subtle portrayal of experience. But I think, viewed from another perspective, they’re a deft cinematic take on Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique. These experiences are not being shown to us as they happened (or would have happened), they are being shown as Mason would have experienced them.
When you’re a teenager hanging Obama signs with your dad and sister, the other people really seem like stock-villain bad guys (this scene has a great line too – as Mason JR. steals a McCain sign, as the race away in their car Mason Sr says “sometimes in this life you’ve gotta fight”). When you’re a senior in high school and visiting your new in-laws who live in the country, they really seem that naive and square. When you’re weeks from graduation and your girlfriend gets way more into texting and hanging out with lacrosse players, that’s what it sounds like to you.
Because that’s the way the world feels to you at those times. The trick is in the camera’s seeming omniscience. You think you’re being objectively shown these experiences (and then concluding that the movie seems somehow too caricatured), but you’re really being brought into an empathetic relationship with the protagonist, for whom those caricatures are currently very real. Joyce’s strategy has been described as one that “extends narrative sympathy” to its protagonists; somehow not putting the narrative into the 1st person heightens the effect. We’re seeing the objective representation of the story that person would think someone else would tell about them. Or, again to quote REM, “you wore your expectations like an armored suit.”
This works well as a way of understanding the film’s final moments: Mason and three people he’s met just a few hours earlier on his first day at college are getting high and going on a nature walk. The film ends with a sort of glib and even a little annoying conversation between Mason and a girl about how “seize the moment” is actually backwards, because “the moment seizes you.”
Now if this were the film’s final, sincere revelation, some sort of cumulative thesis statement, you’d be like “eh, that was kind of dumb.” But if you read it as the film’s final glimpse into Mason’s consciousness, you’ve got a perfect moment of psychological realism: that’s really what it’s like when you’re high and in the mountains with strangers on your first day of college.
As I was leaving the theater I heard two much younger fellow viewers describe this moment much differently – as stupid, cliche, something to giggle over. There is nothing I hate more than, right after enjoying a movie, having to hear the next idiot’s summary dismissal of it.
But looking at those two college-age kids reminded me of another “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” lyric: “irony is the shackles of youth.” If there’s one statement Joyce’s novel and Linklater’s film take seriously, that might be it.
Another even shorter review – this might be the best movie I’ve ever seen.