‘Boyhood’ Puts It All Into Perspective

Ellar Coltrane in 2014 film BOYHOOD, directed by Richard Linklater. Courtesy of Independent Film Festival Boston 20IFFB 06bestmovies
Ellar Coltrane in the 2014 film “Boyhood,” directed by Richard Linklater. Courtesy of Independent Film Festival Boston
Courtesy of Independent Film Festival Boston

There is a fear I have about missing out on life – about looking back and being disappointed that I didn’t take more risks, didn’t travel more, didn’t try as hard as I could. I make bucket lists on the regular but hardly ever cross anything off. If I never do, does that make me a failure?

There is a moment in “Boyhood” that perfectly sums this up. Written, directed, and produced by Richard Linklater, “Boyhood” was shot over a 12-year period with the same cast as they age in real time. It’s a coming-of-age story about a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) growing up in Texas with his mother and sister, and the occasional long weekend with his dad (Ethan Hawke.)

Toward the end of the film, Mason is packing to leave for college, collecting the last of his things from his mother Olivia’s apartment. Played by Patricia Arquette, Olivia has led her family down a series of roads over the years, each new turn determined by her life. The abusive husband. The failed marriages. The new cities, and thus new schools for Mason and his sister Samantha (played masterfully by Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the film’s director). Each time, Olivia pulls it together, dusts herself off, and starts fresh with her children in tow. What other choice do they have?

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In this one scene, Olivia sits at the kitchen table, disengaged, while Mason shuffles through the last of his stuff. Olivia starts to cry. For a moment, we think it’s because her son – her baby – is off to college and she’s about to become an empty nester. And while that’s inherent in the scene and in the moment, yes, that’s not the only thing.

“I thought there would be more,” she says. This sense of loss is more about her own life, her own choices, her own path than it is about his. And isn’t this the sentence that no one ever wants to think, let alone say aloud? That we’ve been so caught up in the day to day that we lose track of time until one day we wake up and realize, that this is all there is and we’ve let our lives pass us by. Except we haven’t.

This is the crux of “Boyhood” for me. We have all entered into this life without a roadmap and without any clue of what we’re supposed to do. We figure it out as we go. We try to make things right when they’ve gone wrong. We love as best we can—sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We’re kids and we go to school and then we get a job and have kids of our own. What more is there?

What Olivia’s missing is what Linklater knows all too well – that “more” comes from finding the beauty in the everyday, as he so masterfully does here. There is nothing exceptional about “Boyhood” except for the fact that it simply looks like real life. (A rarity these days.)

There will be big events in your life, but the bulk of your time on this planet is a series of uneventful Tuesdays when the babysitter is late and you read “Harry Potter” to your kids before they go to bed. And that’s wonderful.

French photographers (and the fathers of modern-day photojournalism) Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson spent the middle of the 20th century shooting everyday life, from children going to work at the mills to the bustling streets in Paris. These were not staged portraitures, not the ideal depiction of how someone thought life should be. It was how life was.

Today, we’re overwhelmed by the documentation of other people’s lives (and our own) more than any other generation in history. But cinema verité this is not. There’s a dishonesty to things like Instagram and Facebook, where we present not only the best version of ourselves (thank you filters) but also the person we hope to be.

Part of the beauty of “Boyhood” comes from letting the actors – particularly the kids – look the way they look. There’s no polish here, no need to turn the kids into models à la early 2000s Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana. Samantha and her one-time stepsister Mindy (Jamie Howard) spend a portion of the movie with the frizzy hair, braces, and bangs that any girl who grew up in the 90s will recognize all too well. They’re unfiltered. They’re kids. And that’s beautiful too, because it’s real.

So what if there’s not more. So what if this is all there is. The magic happens at the intersection of hurt and pain and joy and a sort of mellow contentedness. John Lennon famously sang, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” The secret is being able to recognize these quiet moments as important, and being happy and grateful for the simplicity of it all. Because if we can’t, then what’s the point?