Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’: A Masterpiece?

boyhood poster

I’ve heard many things about this movie. It’s already been reviewed by just about every blog I follow, though I’ve avoided reading those reviews. I did, however, pick up on the fact that everyone has adored it. Well, I’m not sure if “adore” is the right word to describe my reaction, but I did leave the Moxie Theater feeling uncannily validated.

Boyhood is, quite simply, about a young boy growing up in the United States. Nothing special, except for the rather extraordinary fact that director Richard Linklater managed to get the same group of people (Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, and Ethan Hawke) to agree to be filmed a few weeks a year for 12 consecutive years. I’m sure you’ve heard about that feat of coordination as well. It would be wrong to describe this as a movie with a plot. It’s just a peek inside of a few people’s lives as they ebb and flow. Things happen, but organically. If it weren’t for the high quality of the film, and its ability to perfectly capture all of the “key” moments, you could reasonably believe that it was real.

Which is part of the reason why I have a hard time evaluating this film. Is it good? Oh yeah, definitely. Is it great? I’m not sure. It resembles my own life so closely that it’s impossible for me to separate my experiences from those captured on Linklater’s camera. And believe me, I am fully aware that that was the point. It’s somewhat eerie seeing most of your life up on a big screen. I’m not just talking nostalgia — it’s something both more profound and belittling  than that. Those striped denim jeans that Samantha was wearing? I had a pair of those, and so, apparently, did all girls in elementary school. Common features of my life that I didn’t even realize were common were suddenly revealed as archetypes. I don’t think it helps that I spent three years in Wichita Falls, Texas and two years in San Antonio. Even the landscape, the brick facades of the houses in which Mason lived, were nearly identical to those I occupied. The only thing missing was a fluffy, friendly dog.

Closely evaluating the film would mean subjecting myself to a possibly uncomfortable level of self-scrutiny. To say that it resonated with me would be an understatement, and I suspect that the same is true for the vast majority of people who’ve seen it. I felt like someone had hidden a tape recorder in my home, my car, my school and gotten ahold of all of the conversations I’ve ever had, then played them back to me with someone else speaking the words. Boyhood isn’t really an accurate title; something even more generic, like “Life,” would be better. (But who would go see a movie called Life? I probably wouldn’t. It’s too epic and self-congratulatory).

I think this movie works best if you’re white or middle-class. Certainly, it’s meant for Americans. It feels so familiar, as though someone held up a mirror for you to watch your experiences play back in astonishing clarity. Those assumptions about familiarity, though, run deep throughout the film. What does it mean to say that Nintendos are familiar, that of course you dress up for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, grabbing your hardbound, pre-paid copy from the attendant, only to flounce home in your cape and plastic glasses and read it under the covers in your own room, in a brick-fronted house, before being dropped off at a featureless stone building for school the next day? It felt familiar to me, but did it feel familiar to everyone? I’m almost certain that it didn’t, and the movie is an uncomfortable reminder not only of the typicalness of my life, but everything that I haven’t been given a reason to question.

In the end, it’s a marvelous achievement. As someone for whom this movie is written, it rang authentic throughout (even the pretty and irritating high school girlfriend). The acting, particularly from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, is impeccable, as is the steady, never rushed, never boring, sense of time passing. Something remarkable has been made out of a series of lives that are inherently unremarkable. It’s a discomforting type of self-affirmation. How appropriate that Arquette’s character was a professor of Psychology.

So, in the end, I would certainly recommend watching this, particularly if you’re American, and especially if you’re a white American, and irrefutably if you’re a white, middle-class American. Average, average, average until the end of the day, but don’t we average folks just love having our lives reflected back to us? If you leave the theater feeling nostalgic, I think you probably missed the point. But if you leave it with a heavy sense of deja vu, and a startled reaction to how easy it was to pinpoint all of the important moments in your life — then I think you’re on the right track.

Overall rating: I have no idea. (A+ for accuracy. C- for exclusivity).

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20 thoughts on “Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’: A Masterpiece?

  1. Hi. I just found your blog as I am enjoying reading what others thought about the movie. I have a couple of comments about the plot that I’m curious to know your thoughts on.
    As the film ends, we see both parents settle into their positions and posts in life as their children are mostly grown. They seem like they’d finally be a great match! It makes me wonder if we should all have more patience with one another? How much is too much in a marriage? Linklater doesn’t overlook this point but he doesn’t dwell on it either. The father says at a moment late in the film, “ I finally turned into the boring guy your mom always wanted me to be”. He references the importance of timing in life’s relationships. It begs further consideration as we think about our sense of perspective, patience, and our need for immediate gratification.

    Don’t all spouses hate each other sometimes? How long should we be willing to put up with our spouse before abandoning the marriage mission?

    How do the heartaches, and stresses that the mother has gone through in her other relationships trade off to the shitty years with Ethan Hawke? I’m sure these heartaches are only magnified by knowing she has brought her children through these relationships too. Perhaps not on purpose, but it’s almost like Linklater teaching us something about “adulthood” instead of boyhood. Then again, he never stops teaching!

    Then, for me the bombshell line, “I just thought there would be more than this”. More to life; more joy, more moments- a line that my mother would never say in front of me on purpose. This dismal enlightenment by Patricia Arquette is juxtaposed against Mason’s budding emotional maturity as he is being swept away by the feelings involved in his breakup. Such stark contrast we find in an idealistic boy, and an experienced single mother. Linklater reminds us that life is about those feelings – and how quickly we can forget them, and trudge through our tasks.
    I love that finally Linklater has found a space to lecture us – where it doesn’t feel contrived. Its not a floating professor through a dream telling me about physics. Its a Dad, a Mom, and 2 kids in Texas. 🙂

    1. I also found the P. Arquette’s scene of “dismal enlightenment” to be very moving. Thank you for your perceptive comments. Our own lives are filled with such internal drama as makes us cogs in a great universal machine, but often are too busy in everyday concerns too notice. It’s a great film with many shades of meaning, I’ll be sure to give to her scene extra attention when I see it again.

    2. Hi Lupita, and thank you for writing such a thoughtful comment! I must confess that it was so well-written that I wasn’t sure at first whether it was real. You’ll have to excuse me for that.
      I think you are correct that the primary lesson Linklater wished to teach via the Arquette-Hawke relationship was that timing does indeed make a huge difference. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that every person has a single, perfect soulmate; people are right for one another at various points in time, and sometimes relationships don’t work out or fail to emerge simply because the timing, placement, or alignment isn’t right.
      I thought that the “dismal enlightenment” scene paired well with the scene a bit earlier in the cafe when the former plumber thanked Arquette for helping him to realize his potential. One of the most meaningful things Arquette did in her life was make an offhand comment that ended up radically changing someone else’s path. It’s certainly not what she expected.

  2. I’m very intrigue! How cool… does it mean the movie was done in different times within those 12 years with the same actors? I hope this movie will be available in Red Box. 😀
    I stayed in Wichitta Falls, Texas for a little over 2 months. 😉

    1. Yes! Apparently every summer the same group of actors + the director got together and filmed a few scenes. It’s really very cool. I do think it will be available in Red Box, it’s made a lot of money on a tiny budget ($4 million). Hope you enjoy it, it’s definitely heartwarming! How did you like Wichita Falls? Don’t you miss the muddy brown waterfall? 😉

      1. Huh. I just noticed… I confess that I wasn’t paying attention to the blog title…just saw the pic and got the title of the movie.. not the blogpost…thing is, I actually remember Linklater. Same guy who directed (and co-wrote) the Before Sunrise sequels..also with Ethan Hawke. Very interesting, him and Ethan Hawke really have a thing with long-time committing characters. I’m triple intrique

      2. I really am clueless. Sorry I don’t watch TV anymore that I don’t get to watch previews as well. I didn’t know this movie is still showing. Ima watch it tomorrow

  3. For some reason, when I saw previews for this movie, I felt turned off. Strange. But now reading your review, I think it maybe because I grew up in a very white, very middle class neighbourhood (which is now very multicultural), and I am most definitely not white. 😉 Maybe it brought up all those feelings of otherness and alienation I experienced as a teenager?

    1. Yes I can definitely see how it would do that! I think it’s dangerous because it normalizes our societal conception of childhood. And the fact is that the childhood presented in ‘Boyhood’ is hardly normal for most people!

    1. Yeah I’m glad it wasn’t just me! It didn’t feel as eerie *while* I was watching it, but as soon as the movie ended I got that uncomfortable feeling. Even though I grew up in a military family, it was consistent with most of my experiences. Though the movie even incorporated some of that via the 2nd husband who was a veteran.

  4. Oh, how I loved this movie. Then again, me and Richard Linklater (who’s my favorite living director) are pretty much in the same demographic, so your point is well taken. I’m not sure if any work of art is meant for a “general audience” anymore so people should know where their interests lie and choose films accordingly. White, middle-class kid destined for a bohemian lifestyle? Guilty as charged!
    Speaking of being guilty, wanted to let you know I coughed up $1.28 and rented “Wolf of Wall St. last week. It was as putrid as I imagined it to be, but at least now I can rightfully put it on my “most hated” list. I promise to take it off if Jordan Belfort pays back his victims and/or if Martin Scorcese manages to re-connect with the human race on his next film. He could get a few pointers on that from Mr. Linklater.
    Cheers, Rick

    1. Yes, I skip out on maybe 90% of the movies that are released each year because I know they won’t suit me! I’m pretty much in the same demographic as well, minus the boy part, but especially because many of my formative years were spent in Texas and I absorbed some of that laid-back mentality (I think). And I don’t mean to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie. I really, really did! It was wonderful. I just worry about it being potentially alienating because it normalizes the childhood experience in a very specific way…
      Oof sorry that you watched that awful mess of a movie! We’ll see what Martin Scorsese comes up with next. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be much good. Oh well. Now that I know I like Linklater’s style, I can begin his famous Before Sunrise trilogy.
      As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  5. What a great and careful review. I can sense exactly what you’re getting at even though I haven’t seen this one. To be honest, I’d rather see a movie called Girlhood, but perhaps this movie covers that as well, given your description of it. Do you think the portrayal of middle class and average is in some way critical? Does the movie intend to make us leave feeling like you did, with some sense of violation or the unremarkableness of our lives? I kind of want to see this now because of your review.

    1. Thank you! I do think the movie could be called Girlhood. There’s about an equal focus on Mason and his sister, Samantha, for the first 2/3-3/4 of the movie. Samantha’s screen time decreases once she moves away to attend college, but the same thing happens when Mason turns 18, so it’s more or less a balanced portrayal. However, I do think it’s telling that the movie is entitled “Boyhood” as the title alone privileges and normalizes the male experience. I was reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous work “The Second Sex.”
      I think the movie is designed to both celebrate the unremarkable lives that most of us lead, as well as reveal just how similar they are in their unremarkableness. The phrasing of the conversations was so exact, accurate, and realistic, that it makes you wonder how much you’ve been performing a role your entire life. I suppose it can’t be helped. Certainly, do go and see it. Despite the eeriness, it’s very enjoyable.

  6. Haha i love your overall rating! I grew up as a white, working class (not sure what the American term is), boy in Troubles-era Northern Ireland so not sure how much i’d get from this. It would probably make me nostalgic for the American TV shows i watched as a kid.

    On the other hand i’m interested in the movie as a film-making experiment. I’ll definitely watch it at some point.

    1. Yeah working class works! We started off as working class but moved up to middle class, just like Mason’s family in the movie. Another uncanny resemblance! It’s so weird to think that your experience of America comes primarily from TV shows (come to think of it, I’ve seen tons of movies about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so I guess it goes both ways). A lot of those shows are pretty accurate, like Hey Arnold. Which ones do you remember watching?
      Definitely go see the movie. It’s not corny at all. Super, super accurate. People really talk EXACTLY like that. It’s also really funny, especially the Bible-and-shotgun-toting older relatives. But I can’t call it great, because it would sort of be the equivalent of me declaring that my own life is something spectacular, you know?

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