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There are four things to take away from the movie Boyhood, which took Richard Linklater twelve years to make.
The first is that twelve years is a crazy amount of time to spend on a project. The only things that have ever lasted that long in my life are my time at Arvada K-8 and Arvada High before I switched to Pomona High for my junior year, my marriage to Mrs. Filthy, and this one pair of socks I have that I only wear on very special occasions because I don’t want to use up the batteries. I don’t have the discipline to focus on one project for a dozen years. I don’t even have the discipline to make a regular old movie, and they take like a week to make. You get up on Sunday and write a script while taking a shit before breakfast. Then you spend the rest of the day hiring actors. The next six days you get the actors to jump and down and scream in motion-capture suits. After that, you give all the footage to computer nerds and say, “Here, do something with this.”
Hell, sometimes I lose focus just watching a movie. During the trailers I tell myself that when I get home I am going to stop drinking forever, clean the dead fish out of the aquarium and finish the best fucking movie review the world has ever seen, and then get to writing my novel about crime-fighting orphan hobos who can read minds. It’s even better than it sounds, if you can believe that. Plus, it’s a love story. Anyway, by the time of the bloopers during the credits I’m remembering that Cut-rate Liquors has Four Lokos two for five dollars, I have eight bucks left of my allowance, and it might not be on sale tomorrow. The rest of my dreams can wait.
Linklater spent that dozen years with the same cast, to tell the story of a boy’s life from going to first grade to tripping on mushrooms in college. He uses time in a novel way: to age people. The rest of Hollywood uses computers and prosthetics for that.
In the particulars this is not a typical boy’s life, because every kid’s life has its peculiarities. But in the broader strokes it’s the common experience. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) live in Texas with their divorced mom (Patricia Arquette), who struggles to make ends meet. At six, he rides his bike around, graffitis culverts and likes playing video games more than homework. His dad (Ethan Hawke) has a GTO and comes around infrequently. He hasn’t quite grasped the concept of adult responsibility.
In the mom’s quest to move up in the world she makes some shitty dating choices, like marrying an abusive drunk professor who picked her up in class. Personally, I don’t understand why movies always have to make the abusive drunk guy the villain, and so unhappy. Sometimes in real life the abusive drunk guy is a happy-go-lucky sweetheart, a real prince, the sort of guy who only abuses himself, and only then when he’s out of Vaseline or his wife hid her hand lotion again. The mom later moves in with another miserable hard-drinking loser. Neither of these men seem to care much for raising kids so much as lecturing them.
The kids move into one house and a new family, then out and into another new family. Their mom’s shitty man-picking skills leave them unsettled and unable to establish roots. Their dad (Ethan Hawke) comes back and spends more time with them, even trying to understand them. Pops finally grows up, but does it with a new wife and a new baby.
The second thing to take away from Boyhood is that kids are pretty fucking resilient. They get dragged through youth like battered stuffed animals. They’re pawns in adults’ power trips, feel the brunt of bad parental choices, have someone else’s tastes foisted upon them, and are always at the mercy of people who get to make the decisions because they’re older but no better at deciding. The only things constant in Mason’s life are that he has no control over it and he is growing up. As I watched Boyhood, I was amazed at basic human survival instincts and how they can overcome so much shittiness. For kids to go through the meat grinder of childhood and not come out the other end as sausage is a miracle.
The third thing to take away from Boyhood is that a life is sort of like the settling of dust. It’s almost too fucking boring to endure in real time. But if an anthropologist goes back and sifts through all that dust that’s piled up over the years they can see it condensed, the shifts and the events, the bones and detritus, that were left behind and then reconstruct the story that’s led to now. Life is confusing, boring and seemingly pointless in its moments, but clearer and more of a story in hindsight. Which is what this movie shows us. It shows twelve years of a relatively average life squeezed into almost three hours.
Those three hours are long. They are full of tiny moments, and things that a typical movie would turn into dramatic events but just aren’t in real life. Every time a kid has a beer, or every time two people disgree doesn’t mean there will be a crash or a fight. When a kid plays with a sawblade, he doesn’t always lose a finger.
There are many Linklater-like moments of Texas and of people philosophizing out loud for too long and too much out the ass. We have to endure Mason making freshman-year dorm room speeches about the point of existence, but that’s really the point. At six he is an amorphous blob who wants to avoid homework and conflict. He doesn’t own his own opinions and he can’t make his own choices. Yet, somehow through time and all these tiny events, he builds into his own person able to decide for himself and form his own thoughts. Even if those thoughts are the idealistic bullshit of a teenager, they are finally his.
The fourth thing to take away from Boyhood is the shoes of the asshole sitting behind you in the theater. The fucker took them off before the movie and shoved them under your seat. They stink. So, put your toes on them and slowly drag them forward. Then, leave as soon as the credits roll with those things pressed against your chest.
Don’t see Boyhood expecting a typical narrative. It doesn’t have that sort of drama. Also, the point isn’t to make a hero, or to have an average guy overachieve in the face of adversity. It’s to show that there is something honorable in just surviving, and something miraculous in growing up.
Boyhood mostly gets its kids right, which is as rare as hen’s teeth. That’s a joke. Hens don’t really have teeth, something you learn when you try to resell the ones you bought from the Harelip. There are some scenes, though, that feel a bit compressed or fake. In particular, when the boys sleep in a house under construction the conversation sounds more like an adult’s wild ass guess of how kids talk.
Boyhood doesn’t do as well with adults as it does with kids. They don’t get as much screen time, but a lot of them are caricatures. The drunk dad is one note, as is the second drunk. Linklater lets his politics bleed into the story, and it’s obvious he doesn’t think much of people who don't share his opinions.
But Boyhood the movie is like Boyhood the real thing; worth going through. Four Fingers.