With respect to the late, great Roger Ebert, I’m taking the name of his memoir and biographical documentary and giving it instead to Richard Linklater’s new epic novel of a film, for it is Life Itself.
Boyhood chronicles the young life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who at the film’s beginning is a six-year-old on his back, gazing up at a blue sky. He’s in trouble at school for shoving rocks into a classroom pencil sharpener — not because he wanted to destroy it, but because, he tells his mom after she leaves the principal’s office, he thought he could make arrowheads for his burgeoning collection. Such a small moment of innocent longing comes to typify Mason and his journey, which we get to witness throughout the rest of the film’s twelve-year time frame.
Most Hollywood biopics take the “greatest hits” view of their subject’s life. They often glide over childhood to establish some running themes before skipping to adulthood to get to the “real” or familiar story: J. Edgar and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are recent examples of this. But Linklater, he of the intimately expansive Before series, he’s a deep-cut kind of guy. Rather than, say, making a pit stop in childhood on the way to adulthood — where supposed Important Things happen and Life Lessons are learned — it’s as if he rented a place in town so he could stay as long as necessary to really understand where he was, akin to a documentarian or journalist. Linklater the director seems not like the guy at the party who enters with a bang and works the room all night with a procession of drinks in hand, but the one in the corner talking to one person all night about everything — mutual acquaintances, pop culture arcana, and the familiar tropes of life we often don’t know we share with others until we share them with others. He has an eye trained on the truth.
Boyhood unveils its truths deliberately and episodically, year after year adding new dispatches from the front lines of Mason’s life. These dispatches are often celebratory, sometimes jarring, but mostly they catalog life’s banalities, the tiny triumphs and tragedies that accumulate into something approaching a story. In an interview with The Dissolve, Linklater says Boyhood is “all about the little things that don’t have a place in a movie. … This is all the shit they cut out of [a] movie.” This isn’t Beatles 1, a compilation of greatest hits with all the very best the band offered; it’s the Anthology series, a deep dive into the band’s catalog that juxtaposes alternate cuts of the classics hits with obscure and ordinary songs that never get radio play.
The film zooms in to the granular level and stays there, preferring to consider some of the moments that won’t make the slideshow at high school graduation. He makes a virtue out of seeing the cosmic in the quotidian, not unlike, as Brett McCracken noted, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which considers similar connections between a Texas boyhood and the cosmos. Malick employs a much greater visual artistry than Linklater does in general, and with Boyhood specifically, but both filmmakers are concerned with the long game. They delight in capturing the beauty of detail and the rich story such details can tell.
Boyhood captures not just a person but a time and a place. The film is indeed the step-by-step story of a boy’s emerging from boyhood, but it is also a profile of a place. In the literal sense this place is Texas, where Mason — an often frustrated member of an itinerant family — lives in various homes and goes to various schools, haunting the backyards, basements, and back alleys that seem to draw boys in their restless wandering. In another sense the place of boyhood is psychological: it’s a confining, often confusing place where hyperactivity is stifled, where self-determination is chimerical, where the specter of sexuality haunts every interaction with girls and informs (poorly) the vulgar sex talks with other boys, where you’re constantly being told what to do, and where your well-being is almost always at the whim of adults who may or may not deserve such a vital power.
I’m very familiar with the place Boyhood lives in. Excepting a few key differences, I saw so many moments in Mason’s story, little and large, that harmonized with my own.
When as Mason’s mom drove him and his sister away to a new city he saw his neighborhood friend biking behind them as a last goodbye, I saw in my mind the dreadful day my childhood best friend from down the street moved away with his family, and the weekend before when we had one last sleepover and wore our Batman pajamas and wrestled with my dad.
When Mason aloofly played video games on an enormous Apple iMac G3, I saw my fifth-grade computer lab where I wrote a short story about mice playing games and found refuge from my teacher who assigned essays as punishment for peccadillos instead of for teaching us how to write better.
When Mason and his step-siblings were barred from drinking soda by an oppressive father yet in the next scene walked home from school with Cokes proudly in hand, I felt the exhilaration of sneaking to Walgreen’s one summer with my friend to buy candy forbidden by his mother and eating it all in a fury before returning home.
When Mason’s biological dad brought him to an Astros game against the Brewers, I reminisced about trips with my own dad to County Stadium (and then Miller Park) in Milwaukee to see those very Brewers and get autographs during batting practice in between stadium hot dogs.
When Mason entered middle school and hung with kids who clearly were bad influences on him yet offered friendship and camaraderie in the fight against the seeping oppression of puberty, I remembered my own struggles with peer pressure and in crafting an identity that fit in the nebulous space between family, friends, and myself.
When Mason’s high-school photography teacher lectured him condescendingly in the dark room about his aimlessness and impractically whimsical photos, I recalled clashing with a teacher freshman year who was as frustrated by my antagonistic apathy as I was by her overbearing personality.
When I saw Boyhood, I saw my life itself. I saw an hourglass full of sand that drains way too quickly. I saw how every little moment is another grain we can add to give us a little more time, but only if we take the time to appreciate them. “Love all of God’s creation,” exhorts The Tree of Life, “both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”
Driving to college through the Texas desert, Mason stops at a gas station to fill up. He pulls out his camera and starts shooting the little things he sees around him: the architecture, the people, the sky… photography teacher be damned. Once again he’s the daydreaming kid considering the clouds, but now with the accumulated knowledge from a boyhood survived. He’ll soon be filing dispatches from new places — college, career, marriage, fatherhood — ever adding to the hourglass new grains of sand, each a story of life in itself.