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An Evolution on Film
Earlier this year, I sat down to watch Richard Linklater's Before trilogy and found it to be one of the best series of films I had ever seen. Part of why I love the series so much is that it's an achievement in its scope alone. This was a series of films made nine years apart that brought back the same people and managed to make each film better than the last. It made me want to look more into Linklater's work, especially if it promised something experimental. That's when I learned he was going to release a film this year that took 12 years to make.
Boyhood is a fairly simple film in plot. The film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade to college, covering various scenes of his life. His parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) are divorced, and he and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) are constantly shuffled around Texas and forced to adapt to new situations. Over the course of the film, the viewer watches Mason change and become a lot more defined as a person, even if it's hard to accept some of the changes that come his way.
The reason Boyhood took 12 years to make was because of Linklater's approach to telling the story. Rather than film the movie over several weeks and age the characters with makeup or multiple actors, he simply filmed new scenes every year from 2002 to 2014. As a result, the actors in the film age over the course of 166 minutes. With the two children, it's very noticeable, but it's also subtly done with the parents. We're watching these people naturally age so that when we see how they change over the course of the movie, we can see how their physical growth relates to their personal growth.
Now, having lived through the same 12 year period Mason does, there were plenty of moments where I was like “Oh, I remember that,” or “That was so me back then.” Mason watches Dragonball Z, his sister sings “Oops, I Did it Again,” a girl later sings a song from High School Musical, there's talk about the NSA, and so on. Throughout the viewing, it felt easy to attach my ego to the setting. Being slightly older than Mason would be at the time, I could recount being exposed to such culture and having to go through my developmental stages while the Iraq war and the Obama years occurred.
At the same time, I don't feel like Mason's story is meant to be a universal one. Sure, it's easy for people born in the 90's to see similarities in Mason's life, and it's easy to say Mason's childhood is a perfect encapsulation of what it's like to be a kid. Those statements don't feel entirely accurate to me, the former because not every person is going to have similar childhood as Mason's, and there are too many external circumstances that can determine the kind of childhood a person would have to say there's any one common life.
If anything, Mason's life is a time capsule for what it was like to be a millenial. It's not a perfect example, since there are some odd dramatic moments to Mason's life that most people wouldn't ever go through, but it does show how people from 2002-2014 were growing up, what influenced them, and what would shape them for when they go out into the adult world. Mason's dad criticizes his children for talking really passively when he tries to find out what's going on in their lives. The kids start to use more technology the older they get. There's talk about how certain substances can affect your brain and your body.
Older viewers probably relate to Mason and his sister as they relate to their children or grandchildren. That must be an alienating feeling: seeing the younger generation grow up in a world different from what you knew at their age. Younger viewers get a chance to look at the characters' lives and see how it might be filtered through a different, slightly older perspective. Every person who views the movie has a different way to relate to the characters and the story.
I feel like there's a chance to read the film as being about any of the four main characters in the story. Even though Mason is the main point of view and is in every single scene, there's a chance you can connect to any of the main four depending on your background and your personality. Mason's dad is the divorced dad who only can see his kids every so often and tries to balance his young, rebellious nature with being a provider. In Mason's mom, you see the beleagured single mom who continually makes mistakes but tries her hardest to provide for her kids. Mason's sister goes through many of the issues young girls faced in the 2000's, starting off really dramatic and pot stirring but eventually mellowing out and being a little more controlled over her life.
I started looking at the film as though every scene were a memory Mason had looking back on his childhood years later, explaining why the story jumps around randomly and using certain scene details such as news reports and songs on the radio to give us an idea of when the scene takes place. Mason's trying to figure out how the world works, and every moment that appears in the film is something that shapes the young man going to college at the end. Every person looks back at the most random moments of their childhood and thinks about what those moments means to them. Some memories will take new meaning as you age, while others are simply be forgotten.
Boyhood is probably the best 2014 film I've seen so far, and I expect it to be one that will hopefully gain more traction later. It's entirely likely the film will be seen as some quintessential representation of millennial life when the next generation views it, but I think it's more than a time capsule. It's an ambitious film whose existence is quite frankly a miracle. Think about how many things could have destroyed this movie: a main character could have died or quit or somehow become incapable of acting. Even looking past the film history impact, Boyhood is just a plain good film, one that's funny, sad, and dramatic.
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