Every so often, a film comes around that strangles me in a way where my mind and thoughts are unable to leave the impressions it left. It’s not just an exuberant amount of emotions that come out like tears or laughter, but a reaction inside where I feel this chord that’s being gently struck, signaling a reflective reaction where what I’m watching isn’t just two hours of enjoyable entertainment, but something much more meaningful and important. I can sense my heightened pulse, a rise in my breathing, and just this overall intensified reaction that what I’m witnessing on screen is relevant.
All my favorite movies of all-time have done this, especially the likes of 2001, CITIZEN KANE, MAGNOLIA, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and more recently, SHORT TERM 12 and BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR. They are outstanding pieces of work, ranging from wide genres and stories, but all striving for that simplistic goal of discovering the human spirit. And I think that’s the key to any great film: the ability, regardless of how ridiculous or high concept your story is, to make us relate and see ourselves in these characters.
If there’s ever been a film that really captures the essence of this, it’s BOYHOOD, Richard Linklater’s 12 year project in which all the principal cast remains throughout. The idea of shooting a movie over a long period of time like over a decade is, in itself, a great form of increasing awareness and publicity in your project. The sheer craziness and ambitiousness nature of taking upon something like that is admirable but also slightly insane, but with Linklater, the master of cinematic time (Before Trilogy), this is something that he’s clearly infatuated with and knows much about.
So with Boyhood, you get this movie, which at the very core, is all about growing up. Plain and simple. There’s nothing really more he’s going after other than to capture this difficult but universal phase in our lives. There are lots of potential themes or messages he might be going after personally but nothing so obvious or vividly. At a screening, he stated himself that all this film really is is about someone going through their adolescence, but being able to capture it in a unique way where we actually see this growth progress on screen. We’re watching people grow up physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. And though the film centers around Mason (Ellar Coltrane), it’s not only about him. It’s about his sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter), his divorced mother (Patricia Arquette) and his every other weekend father (Ethan Hawke). We’re observing this family’s experience through their existence in this world, surviving their own struggles and fight to just make it out alive and happy. And there’s nothing more relatable than watching another human being struggle to make sense of their own lives.
The most powerful mechanic in all forms of storytelling is the ability to invoke empathy. That is the emotion that makes us who we are. We are beings that need to be empathetic. It’s what makes us move, and what gives us our purpose in life. When we lose empathy, we lose a big part of our DNA that allows us to see others in a way that’s relevant for us, and without it, our world would not exist. So ignoring that grand and bullish statement, let’s look at it through BOYHOOD, easily one of the best films that understands empathy and how to use it without making it feel unauthentic and calculated. Today, so many movies attempt empathy (more like sympathy) through forced character traits or plot lines that are so on-the-nose that it at the VERY BEST, it only allows us to realize that this character struggles. Realizing and discovering a character’s struggles are nowhere near the same thing as experiencing it, and the best way for the audience to live with it is, simply, to show it. Now that’s a rule in cinema that’s been held ever since the beginning of the moving picture. Show us, don’t tell us. But that’s a rule that needs so much more context to each individual story or film, not just this universal thing that works for every single idea or project.
But even then, the rule reigns because of its truth, and with BOYHOOD, it’s done in a way that shockingly, is rarely ever done. Subtlety. Simplicity. Realistic. Honesty. Let’s ask ourselves this. When was the last time you saw a studio film that used these four elements? Everything now is so obvious, so forced that even if we move away, we still get smears of emotional manipulation seeping through the screen. Unfortunately, you can’t force empathy. It’s a feeling or emotion that happens when the viewer is so engaged and so involved that it naturally occurs in a manner that we, as the audience, have no idea it’s actually happening after the film ends, or may not even realize until way later. This is something that I didn’t discover for the longest time, but yet lived my life loving the movies that I did because I just loved them. I think a lot of people are that way, and it’s not a bad thing, but a lot goes into making a good movie, let alone a great one. And I know I’m speaking in hyperbole in a borderline excruciating way, but that should show you how effective BOYHOOD was.
When looking back on my experience with BOYHOOD, I realized that why it works so well, for met at least, is that it doesn’t explain to us what’s going on. We’re not told how characters feel, or how this will affect them now or in the near future. I think that’s the biggest problem with cliche narratives and formulaic storytelling. It’s as if movies now follow this set in stone process of how to reveal things within our character, and though there are basic structures that work well, we’ve abused them in ways that make it unappealing and unnatural. But with BOYHOOD, there are no post-discussions, no character reveals through exposition and or soliloquy-like speeches, or your typical one-on-one “this is what happened to me and this is how I felt and this is how I’m going to show the audience who I am” type tropes. They do work, but using elements that work doesn’t mean they’ll actually work. It’s a failure of actually understanding the big picture of your story.
BOYHOOD, instead, lets these situations or events happen, and let’s us fill-in-the-blanks. The movie itself is a small picture as in nothing big happens and it’s all about these small but important moments that slowly shape us into the people we are now. The wonderful thing about how it’s done is that the characters DON’T EVER KNOW that this change is happening. Change doesn’t shape who we are knowingly, it’s a developmental transition. And I love how BOYHOOD understands this so well. Though these are small moments, they are big moments in the average life lived, especially for a child. And I think something that Linklater, intentional or not, did so well is to show Mason’s firsts. Mason’s first kiss, first girlfriend, first traumatic experience, first fight, all these firsts that you don’t realize are his firsts, but reflect highly on our viewing experience because we’re not just thinking about his, we’re thinking about ours. We’re thinking about what it was like for our to grow up, to witness beautiful, loving, and highly important moments in our lives, and then remembering those painful and difficult memories that have stuck with us through time. In essence, BOYHOOD shows the power of innocence or the power in having that innocence broken. That is real magnitude that’s felt during our time growing up. When we witness things that are bigger than us at the exact time, and how it stays with us. This is what BOYHOOD really does well. We don’t forget what Mason goes through when he was five or six, when he witnesses a fight with his Mom’s boyfriend or moving away. We’ve grown up with him, and though he doesn’t speak of those moments at all, we know it’s there, we know it’s part of him, and we know it’s affected him the way these events affect all of us. Empathy.
I think what I appreciate most about It BOYHOOD is that it doesn’t preach. It doesn’t make any statements on alcoholism, domestic violence or abuse, divorce, drugs, school, relationships, etc. These all happen throughout the film, but nothing more. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to do as a storyteller/filmmaker. We sometimes try and make things so obvious and so clear, but we forget that the best way to approach the goal of empathy is to almost say nothing. Let the audience fill in those aftermaths, those discussions, those reflective moments. The beauty in film is to not force all viewers on singular experience and endpoint, but to see the many different types of reactions and messages they received from it all, regardless of it being intentional or not.
I know how we perceive films are so subjective, but with BOYHOOD, I couldn’t help but look back at my own life. There were so many instances that Mason went through that I couldn’t help but see myself in that scene. When Mason is upset or hurt by things that happened to him, he would refuse to go to school, claiming he was sick or didn’t feel well enough. When Mason watches through the creeks of his bedroom door, watching his Mom struggle, watching her cry, watching her do everything she can to give her children the best life possible even though life to her still doesn’t make much sense. To have an older sibling annoy you when you’re sleeping and then blaming it on you when you’re totally innocent. Experiencing your first true heartbreak with a girl. When life seems to shatter when that one important person has all but left. When we find our calling or passion in life, and how nothing else seems to matter except doing what you love. When we’re in those moments, like at the very end, that regardless of all the shit that you’ve gone through and seen, that at this very moment, at this exact place and time, you feel this comforted feeling that, yeah, things will be okay.
And yeah, maybe my experiences are more similar to Mason’s, but that does not explain the power and infatuation people are having with this film all over the globe. It’s success isn’t limited by its country of origin, and people from all backgrounds and cultures are able to connect to BOYHOOD. Maybe you haven’t gone through divorce, or witnessed abuse, or had an alcoholic father, or through some statistical anomaly, never had your heart broken. But life is something that needs to be shared with. Our story needs to be told, passed along through our friends, our family, our significant other, our children. Regardless of how easy or how difficult life has been, no life is easy. We’re filled with wonder, curiosity, confusion, instability, knowledge, growth, pain, suffering, loss, denial, acceptance, motivation, passivity, delusion, dreams, fears, nightmares, love, hate. The list goes on and on, and though we’re all different and unique in many ways, we’re also a lot more alike than we assume.
I’m making grand statement after grand statement, but I think that’s what BOYHOOD has achieved. It makes us a little bit softer, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more accepting… a little bit more empathetic. To our parents, our best friends, our lovers, our enemies, strangers. We are more willing to reflect and look back, and, hopefully, not be so hard on our identity and who we are. Sometimes the person we need to be kindest to is ourselves.
Go see Boyhood. Go see it in a theater with a group of friends, by yourself, with your family, with someone important. Go drive extra miles for it. Go spend some money it. Go discuss it with people who have seen it. If you didn’t like, which could very well happen since all the hype, talk about why you didn’t like. If you did love it, reflect on it. Write about it. Start a conversation. When we see something that moves us in a way that is so distinct from anything else, we need to react properly. When I think about BOYHOOD, I think about how it is very reason why film exists, why story exists, and it gives me hope that movies like this can be made.