When the lights came up in the theater after the credits rolled, I didn't know what I felt. I had just seen Boyhood, director Richard Linklater's epic story of one boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), growing up from age 5 to age 18 and filmed over the course of 11 years. The reviews and articles that I had read before finally getting to see the film - over eight months after it's premiere at Sundance earlier this year - had promised an emotional, affirming, wholly unique experience, a touching film about growing up. It was universally affecting. I would be moved.
But here I was, making my way out of the theater unsure of how I felt. There was plenty to be impressed by, make no mistake about it. Watching the actors, especially Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater as Mason's sister Samantha, age onscreen is a remarkable sight. Like many Linklater films, there's a rambling structure to the narrative, reeling from one event to the next without necessarily providing clean-cut revolution. There's plenty of conversations about philosophical concepts and other intangible aspects of life, growing more sophisticated the older Mason gets. Patricia Arquette gives a stunning performance as Mason's mother, struggling to raise her family while making questionable choices in relationships. It all added up to a truly great film.
So why wasn't I feeling it? Where was the immense sadness and longing for childhood, the film's emotional impact on me?
More after the jump.
At first, I was caught up in the specifics: Mason's childhood wasn't my childhood. When the film opens, Mason's parents are already separated; mine wouldn't until I had graduated from high school. Where Mason's father (Ethan Hawke) is often absent for long stretches of time, mine wasn't, though with his work schedule I wouldn't see much of him during the week. My mom was never involved with an abusive drunk, I never had step-siblings. More than that, once my family moved to North Carolina just before I turned 10, I was a homebody, hardly ever hanging out with friends outside of school. I lived in a house way out in the woods in a tiny town near the Virginia border; I wasn't hanging out with friends in the neighborhood because there was no neighborhood. I wasn't affected, I decided, because I couldn't relate to Mason. His childhood was foreign to me. That's not my boyhood.
Yet the film wouldn't leave my mind. I wouldn't let it. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was missing something, like there was something there that I couldn't see but kept nagging at me.
I don't often write in first-person for this blog. For the most part, I try to keep it "objective," preserving a professional veneer. It's my blog, and of course every review I write is built on my own opinions. But I want to keep things formal, I guess to prove that I have what it takes to be a professional film critic (not to mention that I understand film theory and analysis). A important facet of film criticism is being able to explain how the formal elements of film - acting, editing, writing, sound effects, etc. - combine to create the experience, and how strengths and weaknesses in those areas affect the overall quality of the picture. That's where the critic looks for meaning, and it's what they build their review on.
But it's never just that. Every film has a certain je ne sais quoi, an intangible quality to it that makes it what it is. It's why, despite having nothing but admiration for every formal element of the film, I can't bring myself to love The Social Network: there's just something missing - or maybe something there that I just don't respond to - that's preventing me from being head-over-heels for it. I can reason with myself all I want, and I can convince myself that the film is a masterpiece, but I can never call it one of my favorites. It just doesn't click for me.
It's because of this intangibility that I don't often write about a film immediately after I see it. I keep my notes, but letting it percolate in my mind gives me the opportunity to really reflect on what made that film special to me (if anything). Boyhood has been percolating for a much longer time than usual: I saw the film on August 28. It's mid-October now. I've deleted several drafts of this review already, each one a more formal attempt to nail down a professional take on the quality of this film. But it never came to, because I still didn't feel it. I was waiting for the love for this film to wash over me, and it just hadn't.
Thinking about this film has inevitably meant thinking about my own childhood as well. And the more I thought about that, the more the film began clicking into place. The film's structure mimics memory in the way that scenes are loosely connected, creating more of a patchwork quilt of experience than a traditional three-act narrative. The images feel true to what I remember from my childhood. I don't remember everything from those early years, but there are things that do stand out: a snapping turtle in the backyard, a giant hole (well, giant to me then) my brother and I dug with friends in the neighborhood when we lived in Moultrie, Georgia. There are stories to be told, but they're stories half-remembered now. Like Mason finding a dead bird, it's an image that sticks, but the context has been stripped away by time. It was inconsequential, but it remains.
I write all of this because I've reached a moment; if not an epiphany, then at least an understanding. I have even more admiration for the film now, particularly for Linklater's ability to craft a film that feels both very much of the time it was made and completely unmoored from time. We collectively identify ourselves in terms of major events that affected many of us - tragedies like 9/11, successes like the Houston Astros playing the World Series, unprecedented moments like the election of Barack Obama - and Boyhood acknowledges those moments. Yet there are other, smaller events that each of us experience: romance, heartbreak, inebriation, alienation, bonding, anxiety, anticipation, harmony. These experiences are the most universal of all, and though the circumstances will vary from person to person, every one of us is familiar with them.
That's where I've been going wrong in reflecting on this film. I've made the mistake of trying to link Mason's experiences growing up directly to the events of my own. But I am not Mason. I am Jason. I have very different experiences from my childhood than Mason did, and those experiences have shaped me into someone who is very different from who Mason is at the end of the film. And yet, the more I think about those final moments, the more I see myself in him. The more I recognize the emotions, the logic, and the attitude he experiences. I connected to him not as a character in a film, but as a person. It's a simple thing to do, something that people do all the time when they watch films. It's something that I have done countless times. And yet, this one time, after so many weeks since it concluded, I finally made that connection.
Boyhood, ultimately, is all about those intangibles of growing up. It's a film that works as a collage of Mason's adolescence, then let's you project your own experiences upon that collage. It's not a film that's viewed so much as a film that needs to be felt. I felt it. You should too. A