Boyhood: A Profoundly Human Story

Richard Linklater’s new film is powerful because it reminds us that the dull, plotless events of our fleeting lives matter in the way in which all quotidian things matter: as Joycean “epiphanies of the ordinary.”

Boyhood is one of the most special movies of this decade, but it is not one of the best movies of this decade. It deservedly received a bevy of Oscar nominations—six in all, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, but winning only for Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette).

Why has Boyhood, a modest film with a paltry budget of only $4 million (by contrast, Guardians of the Galaxy had a budget of $170 million), received so much attention? The first two reasons for the garlands that this good movie has garnered are obvious; the third reason is much less obvious, but much more important.

First, this film has received so much attention not because of the story it tells but because of the story of how the movie was made. It is the only dramatic (non-documentary) movie in cinematic history to have been filmed over a twelve-year span, with the same cast, shot by the same director. Boyhood’s story could not be simpler: it charts the growth of a family—and the growth of one young boy in particular—over twelve years. We follow Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the time he is five years old until he is ready to go off to college at the age of eighteen. In other words, we witness his growth from a child to an adolescent on the verge of adulthood.

Second, this is one of the more “relatable” films of recently memory. There are no superheroes, no special effects, and no strange twists of fortune and fate. Instead, there is a brother, a sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), and a mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) who are divorced. There is no real “plot”; rather, there are a series of episodes from the family’s life. Everyone who watches this movie will see something strikingly similar to an event, relationship, or emotion one has experienced in one’s own life, because this is a movie that could be made about any life. It is a film about one particular family, but it is a film that could be made about any family.

Epiphanies of the Ordinary

Though Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke have never been better, the boy is, well—how should we put this?—“meh.” Let’s remember that at five years old, he was not an “actor” who “chose” this project in the way that Ethan Hawke did; his parents volunteered him for the role when he was a child. Fortunately, the quality of the boy’s acting is, in a certain sense, inconsequential to the meaning of this movie. In fact, one could argue that the boy’s blandness in fact bolsters the film’s brilliance; the boy is an archetype, a blank slate upon which we all project the memories of our own childhoods and relive those long-forgotten moments of our earliest years.

There is no “story” per se in Boyhood, but the movie houses a profoundly human story at its heart. Boyhood illustrates Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss’s astute observation that we must begin with the particular in order to reach the universal, for the universal grows out of the particular. Even though we may reach the universal, we never completely disassociate ourselves from the particular—and it is through particular love (love for our self, for our family, for our tribe, for our country) that we reach universal love for all humankind. Thus, it is precisely because Boyhood is a particular story, set in a particular town, and taking place in a particular state, that it becomes a universal story in its appeal and in its import.

But the universalism, as Saul Bellow reminds us in his great novel Herzog, must cohere into something larger, more significant, more meaningful:

All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do not matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is.

Boyhood resonates because these things do matter. And these things matter because we do choose to see ourselves as living in a universe where these things matter. And so, it does matter that Mason’s mom fights through a series of poor marital choices and a difficult career path in order to secure a somewhat stable upbringing for her children. And it does matter that she does their laundry and cooks for them and cleans for them and organizes graduation parties for them. It does matter that Mason’s dad tries his best to stay close to his children, and it does matter that he takes Mason to Houston Astros games and camping trips. It matters that Mason’s mom tries to coolly distance herself from her children when she sends them off to college, but it matters more that she cannot fight off her irrepressible motherly emotions and ends up crying when Mason departs for the University of Texas.

All of these things matter in the way all quotidian things matter: as Joycean “epiphanies of the ordinary.” And these things matter to every family for the same reason this movie matters to everyone who sees it: because the movie functions within us in a profound, deep, and religious manner.

The Compression of Time

The third reason this movie is so powerful is the most subtle, but most important reason of them all. Whether or not viewers realize it, the film taps into the most primal, primordial, perennial concerns we all have: the unstoppable march of time and the meaning of life.

Boyhood takes twelve years and compresses them into less than three hours. To see the movie’s characters rapidly age before our eyes reminds us of our own mortality, and compels us to ask, as Mason asks his father towards the end of the film, “what’s it all about?”

Mason: So what’s the point?

Dad: Of what?

Mason: I don’t know, any of this. Everything.

Dad: Everything? What’s the point? I mean, I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it, you know? The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.

The feeling elicited by watching Boyhood is similar, though not quite as powerful, as the feeling imparted by the magisterial Up Series, a monumental project in documentary film in which director Michael Apted took a group of English schoolchildren and filmed interviews with them every seven years from the time they were seven years old up until the present day. The first of these documentaries was titled Seven Up (1964); the most recent documentary in the series was filmed when they were all 56 years old: 56 Up (2012).

When we watch Boyhood or the Up series, we sense how quickly time moves, and when we think about the passage of time and the swift, inexorable path along which our lives progress, we inevitably ask, “what’s it all about?” If we’re here for such a short time, and the time we do have flies by, and is lost forever once it’s gone—then what’s the point? Why do I exist? Why do we exist? Does life have a purpose?

But beyond these questions, what is that funny feeling we feel when watching Boyhood or the Up series? It is a certainly a sentimental, melancholic feeling, particularly for parents who have experienced the roiling emotions of sending a child off to college. It is a feeling of mono no aware, a Japanese term I learned about from Roger Ebert, which means the appreciation for, and heightened awareness of, the ephemera of time. It is also, surprisingly—and significantly—a religious feeling.

Religious Feelings

There is something about observing a compression of time, or experiencing the swift passage of time, that engenders those mysterious sensations that we term “religious” (or “numinous”) feelings—those sensations we receive that connect us to something that is greater than ourselves; those awe-some feelings of transcendence that sound the simultaneously melodious and awe-full sonnets of the supernatural and the spiritual within us; and those mystic chords of memory that move us to communion with others in our community who live in other regions of the globe and in other times of history.

This is what little Hans Castorp felt when, in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, his grandfather would show him the family christening basin:

On the back, engraved in a variety of scripts, were the names of its successive owners, seven in number, each with the date when it had passed into his hands. The old man named each one to his grandson, pointing with beringed index finger. There was Hans Castorp’s father’s name, there was Grandfather’s own, there was Great-grandfathers’ (“Urgroßvater”); then the “great” (“Ur”) came doubled, tripled, quadrupled, from the old man’s mouth, whilst the little lad listened, his head on one side, the eyes full of thought, yet fixed and dreamy too, the childish lips parted, half with awe, half sleepily. That great-great-great-great (“Ur-Ur-Ur-Ur”)—what a hollow sound it had, how it spoke of the falling away of time, yet how it seemed the expression of a piously cherished link between the present, his own life, and the depth of the past! …. Religious feeling mingled in his mind with thoughts of death and a sense of history, as he listened to the somber syllable; he received therefrom an ineffable gratification—indeed, it may have been for the sake of hearing the sound that he so often begged to see the christening basin. . . .

The little one looked up at Grandfather’s narrow grey head, bending over the basin as it had in the time he described. A familiar feeling pervaded the child: a strange, dreamy, troubling sense: of change in the midst of duration, of time as both flowing and persisting, of recurrence in continuity—these were sensations he had felt before on the like occasion, and both expected and longed for again, whenever the heirloom was displayed.

These, then, are the feelings we feel when we see Boyhood and the Up series: the “falling away of time,” the “piously cherished link between the present, [our] own [lives], and the depth of the past”—these are “religious” feelings, and they are feelings that, somehow simultaneously, we both long for and dread, yet long for again and again. These are the feelings that are behind the remarkable resonance of Boyhood.

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