Monday, September 29, 2014

Boyhood: A Unique Coming of Age Tale

 by Justus N. Macharia

12 years in two and a half hours. That’s Boyhood, the film by writer/ director Richard Linklater of the Before series of films. Centered on the life of a six year old boy and his family, it was shot over a period of twelve years, with the same actors playing the same characters for that entire period. Films such as Slumdog Millionaire have similarly traced the life of a young man from an early age, but in that case several actors played the different age groups. Even more impressive is the documentary series 28UP which traced the lives of seven-year-old South African children from 1992 to 2013. While the crew for 28UP came back to see the kids after every 7 years, in Boyhood the crew filmed every year since 2002. Also differing from 28UP is the fact that it is a fictional film, Boyhood uses the idea of documenting the actual growth of its actors to create a cinematic experience rarely seen in movies.
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Boyhood chronicles the life of a young boy, Mason Evans Jr (Ellar Coltrane), through the formative stages of his life from age six to eighteen. Mason is ‘the boy with the gaze’ and among the first shots of the film shows him looking dreamily at a cloudy sky. Mason comes from a broken home living with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater) while his father (Ethan Hawke) works far away. His mother makes the decision that it is time for them to move so that she can attend college. Uprooted from their home and friends this becomes the first in a set of homes that they are to leave. It becomes clear that Mason wants his father to live with them, but he is baffled by his parents’ unwillingness to reconcile. When his parents argue for the first time onscreen, it is filmed through a window from the children’s perspective; the words of the argument are unheard, and the audience is made to observe with a child’s eyes; aware of the conflict, but unaware of its cause.

Boyhood is as much about Mason as it is about his entire family, and in an effort to be a better parent while still living her own life, his mother (Patricia Arquette) marries two other men over the years. While his mother seeks to create a ‘whole’ family for her children and herself Mason sees the men, who are at the start caring and accommodating, morph into violent and abusive individuals. And through his eyes and his life experiences the audience is made to witness the unraveling of a child’s innocence. Often the intelligence of children is underestimated, but Mason’s eyes study violence, falsehood and unhappiness of the world around him. It is the perspective of a child who does not understand that adults can not forgive or be civil with each other even when those are the fundamentals they are teaching.

Boyhood is about the spirit of childhood and the ignorance of adult realities. It is both a celebration of childhood, the indifference of it in the present, and the nostalgia of it in loss. Mason is in some ways a ‘typical boy’; he likes videogames, bullying his sister and later on girls. But he is different; he has those eyes that linger on moments when everyone else has averted their eyes. Yet as the character of Mason grows so do the questions he has about life. Being told to be disciplined, goal-oriented and hardworking mean little to him when he has no idea what the goal actually is. This is the story of a boy trying to find a place of rest in a world that is constantly in motion. Nothing is ever concrete, from one town to the next, one house to another and one life expectation after the other.

Few things consciously alert us to the changes in our lives; one moment you are six, the next eighteen, and the entirety of ten years is only marked by a handful of events: pubic hair, first kiss, finishing eighth grade, loss of virginity or completing school (in whichever order). But to see a person literally grow up alerts us to the many events that make up our existence. And it makes the viewer conscious that one does not age on their birthday but that by each passing second we are older through our experiences. Richard Linklater called on all the actors to infuse their present experiences of parenting and childhood into their characters' journeys, and when watching the film one does get the sense that this may be a well-choreographed documentary. ‘Boyhood’ is a coming of age tale, an existential film, filled with the relevance of the twenty-first century. It is devoid of Hollywood high drama or indie self-indulgence. It is just about people, and how the intimate lives of people are magnificent journeys of self-discovery.