Moments Out of Time, by Rita Cannon
Virtually all movies are in some way a time capsule. Even if they’re period pieces, or take place in some outlandish fictional universe wildly different from our own, they can still serve as telling snapshots of time in which they were made. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, shot in about 40 days spread out over twelve years, uses this fact to his advantage by chronicling the life of one boy from age six to age eighteen, allowing us to watch as lead actor Ellar Coltrane literally grows up before our eyes. Fans of Linklater’s Before trilogy already know he has a fascination with the passage of time, and a talent for portraying it with grace, realism, and precise detail. But where those films depicted one relationship in three discrete chapters, Boyhoodhas a larger scope, a longer runtime, and a continuous timeline. As I watched it, I was reminded of the adage that while life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forwards. Boyhood feels like a living example of that. It feels simultaneously like a young life as its being lived, and like an accumulation of memories being called up from the perspective of adulthood.
Coltrane plays Mason, a boy in Texas being raised by his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and to lesser extent by his frequently absent father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). He and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) navigate the tricky experience of having divorced parents, and the vagaries of growing up in general. As far what actually happens in Boyhood . . . there isn’t a whole lot more than that. The closest thing it has to a throughline concerns Olivia’s string of not-so-great husbands, and her eventual acquisition of a master’s degree and career as a professor in spite of that fact. But the movie isn’t really about that. It’s mostly a loosely connected web of events. A few of them are genuinely dramatic – Olivia’s second husband turns out to be a violent alcoholic, and the escalation of his abuse and the family’s escape from him are as plot-driven as the film gets. But most are low-key: Attending a Harry Potter book release party. Driving around with Dad, putting up Obama-Biden signs. Going to school with a bad haircut and feeling embarrassed. A camping trip, a birthday party, a conversation with a cute girl from school that never really goes anywhere. Certain scenes seem designed to prey on our expectation that something out of the ordinary will happen, only to subvert it. When Mason spends a night hanging out in an abandoned house with some older boys, drinking beer and throwing circular saw blades at a wall, I and many of the people at my screening were on the edge of our seats, certain that someone was about to be seriously injured. The scene ends without anything dire happening, and the sighs of relief were audible.
But for most people, isn’t that what our recollections of life amount to? One or two big dramatic events, a handful of close calls that we usually don’t even recognize when they happen to us, and then a whole lot of memories that are pretty low-key. Towards the end of the film, as Mason is preparing to leave home for college, Olivia makes the distressing realization that after years of doing everything she could for her kids, the end result is losing them to the world. Keeping her head down and plowing through all the milestones – marriages, divorces, birthdays, graduations – has led her to a place where, as she sees it, the only milestone left is her own funeral. It’s a curious, bittersweet moment, and it also underlines what might be the film’s core theme, if it even has one: For all the fuss people make about the publicly acknowledged landmarks of “coming of age,” the actual shape of people’s lives is mostly built slowly, bit by bit, over the course of many ordinary days.