In the 2012 film Looper the decision was made to alter Joseph Gordon-Levitte’s face so that he would more closely resemble the older version of his character played by Bruce Willis. This was not only unnecessary (the suspension of disbelief was more greatly strained elsewhere), but absurd, for why on earth would you want another actor to look like Bruce Willis? We are used to seeing some reasonably similar young actor stand in for a more famous older counterpart; a simple approximation of Sean Penn’s burnt out gaze is enough for us to believe that Hunter McCracken is his younger version in the Tree of Life; while Jim Carrey’s stand-ins can get away with a bad haircut and weird teeth.
But in Boyhood, the most recent film from Richard Linklater, the need for multiple actors to portray the maturity of a character is circumvented by filming the same actor over the course of twelve years. Boyhood is heartbreaking for this reason; in a scant 164 minutes this mortal life is seen in full Solomonic brevity, breathlike and fleeting. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is six when the film begins and he ages, along with his co-stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater, at such a breakneck pace that there’s an inescapable desperation over youth, its opportunities and misfortunes.
Through the modern markers of videogames, pornography, divorce, sex and drugs, Mason is raised by his mother, punctuated by weekends with his biological father, and stepfathers at varying levels of dissipation. The film is so devastating in that it carries such yearning, both to grow and escape the anxieties of childhood, and to cling to the miracle and mystery of youth. Lessons from bowling alleys (“You don’t want the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers”) an unwanted haircut forced upon him by an abusive stepfather, being chewed out by a fastfood manager, moments that seem inconsequential until you see his tears or the plaintive tone of his voice.
In the first scene Mason is on the ground, one hand behind his head, the other raised as if in question, and he is looking at clouds. What he sees in those nebulous shapes above him becomes the defining question for the audience. In the parade of scenes, often unshaped by explicit narrative direction, the audience is called to seek out its own questions, frame a critique and provide one’s own instruction. For the only answer offered to the question of Life is delivered by Mason at the end as a freshman in college, tripping on shrooms in the wilderness. The expression carpe diem, he says, is backwards. “You don’t seize the moment; the moment seizes you.” It is fairly vacuous advice, but you can see why a director would want this to ring true.
Mason’s father, played by Mr. Hawke as yet another male in arrested development, doesn’t so much settle down as much as lose his inertia for bachelorhood. He offers as sage advice as he can muster, but his maturity seems to lag behind his son’s. And even when he trades in the GTO for a mini-van, the musician roommate for a wholesome wife and newborn, and his shrugging agnosticism for a half-hearted Christianity, he still seems less sturdy and reliable than his son.
At the center of Boyhood, as it is in childhood, is the mother, played by Ms. Arquette with pitchperfect fragility and determination. She is the gravitational force around which everyone orbits and her energies are directed outward. Her character has the narrative arc, she drives the family forward with only infrequent and mediocre aid from her ex. At the end, having achieved her goals of getting her degree and masters, finding financial stability, raising two children and sending them off to college, she breaks down. “This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now?” She enacts for the audience the sorrow of mankind that all flesh is grass. The unstated emptiness of their lives suddenly breaks out and it is startling and unsettling. Ultimately it throws the entire film off-balance.
The only hint that there might be something greater than this vaporous life is when the father asks Mason and his sister to come for their younger brother’s baptism. “You aren’t becoming one of those God people, are you dad?” asks his daughter. He only smiles. Mason asks if he has to get baptized too and his father offers to baptize him right there in the lake. It is played off as nothing and the moment passes. Some movies lead a discussion, but others are content to inspire the conversation. Boyhood is in the later class. It offers no worthwhile answers, but it carves out space to ask the questions. The narrative implicitly gives weight to a child’s life, his wants are given dignity, and since no solution or instruction is provided for living well the best the audience can do is turn to the children around them and listen, support, train and seize the moments with them.