As preparing for the last steps of my graduate course at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in these days, I sometimes feel a bit wistful about my long years at KAIST. The day when I entered the campus as an undergraduate student in 2000 still feels like yesterday to me, but almost 15 years have passed now, and, as a guy who is about to become 32, I notice faint wrinkles on my forehead whenever I look into my bathroom mirror in the morning. Time seemed far slower when I was young, but now I become more aware of its rapid one-way flow day by day. The more I recognize the changes around and inside me, the more I reflect on how I came to arrive at where I am now, while also wondering what will happen next in my inconsequential life which has been drifted along the stream of time faster than I expected.
When I watched Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, I experienced a similar feeling as alternatively amused and touched by its vivid, realistic depiction of life through the passage of time. Consisting of the series of episodes observed from its young hero’s maturation process during 12 years, the movie did a remarkable job of showing how life is shaped and changed over the course of time, and its long life journey is a truly absorbing experience as we muse on how much its young hero and others around him have been changed compared to when they were introduced to us in the beginning. We consider all these years they went through, and we come to see many recognizable human elements from their life story, and then we look back on ourselves and our life. Things are always bound to be changed through time in our life, and, as powerfully presented in this intimate but epic coming-of-age drama, so are we human beings.
When we meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) during the opening scene, he is a 6-year-old boy beginning his first year at the school. He and his spunky older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, who is Linklater’s daughter) is currently living with their recently divorced mother, and Olivia (Patricia Arquette) has been struggling to lead her own life as trying to support her kids as a single parent. For completing her college education and getting better opportunities, she decides to move to Huston, and her kids are not so enthusiastic to hear that news from her because that means they will say farewells to their neighbourhood friends – and that is just the beginning of their drifting life around several cities of Texas during the next 12 years.
Although Olivia makes some academic/professional progresses as she hoped, we comes to see that she is not very good at providing a stable domestic environment for her kids – especially in case of choosing her men. She marries a college professor not long after she attends his class, and she looks happy to have a new husband while Mason and Samantha get along well with their stepfather’s children, but their good years do not last long mainly due to his alcoholism. Like his rather bullying attitude to his stepchildren as well as his own kids, it merely looks like a small problem Mason and the other family members can live with at first, but then the circumstance becomes quite serious for them as his stepfather’s drinking habit becomes worse, and that leads to the most tense moment in the movie. Olivia finally leaves him with her kids, and then she marries another guy a few years later, but, though he looks better than her second ex-husband at first, this guy turns out to be not so different from her previous husband.
Meanwhile, Mason and Samantha steadily maintains the relationship with their father. As he frankly admits, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) could not be a good husband to Olivia due to his carefree lifestyle mainly represented by his classic sports car, and we can only guess how bitterly their marriage was terminated in the past, but he really likes to be with his kids although it is clear that he still needs to grow up more. He looks more like a big boy to play with for his kids (not many responsible dads play bowling with their kids after smoking marijuana, you know), and we get a small funny scene when he attempts to have an honest conversation with Mason and Samantha. He mostly fumbles and embarrasses himself in front of his kids, but, at least, nobody will say that he did not try.
And we see Mason gradually entering adolescent years. He starts to show his artistic sensibility occasionally glimpsed during his early years, and we see his increasing interest in photography, which was initiated by a camera given to him by his second stepfather. Like many teenagers around his age, he dabbles in alcohol and drugs at times, and he later begins a serious relationship with one of the girls in his high school.
It is already well known that the director Richard Linklater shot the movie with his actors bit by bit over the period of 12 years, and that particularly reminds me of Michael Winterbottom’s “Everyday” (2012), which was a similar cinematic experiment in smaller scale. The most interesting thing in “Everyone” was watching its child actors really growing up through passing years on the screen, and the same thing can be said about “Boyhood”, which presents more wondrous changes through its bigger scope. The lead actor Ellar Coltrane was 7 at the beginning of the production, and we cannot help but notice how much he looks different when he eventually grows up to be a young lad at the beginning of his first college year. Mason is certainly changed in many aspects as going through 12 years, but there are some remaining traits from his early years, and you can still sense that smart, inquisitive child who saw things a little differently unlike others.
In spite of its discontinuous production process, the film moves flawlessly from one scene to the other scene thanks to an excellent editing job by Sandra Adair, and it is further smoothened by its organic storytelling improvised through the close collaboration between Linklator and his main actors. The obvious narrative signposts such as the second Iraq War, Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign, and Lady Gaga are incorporated into the movie as naturally as other small period details, and I was especially amused by certain details associated with technological developments (when is the last time you saw a CRT computer monitor, for example?).
As Mason is approaching to the end of his boyhood which will lead to his next chapter of his life, we come to realize that the movie is also about the separate life journeys of his mother and father. As getting older and a little wiser, Mason Sr. comes closer to his kids, and he even becomes an average family man after his second marriage, which was probably something he never imagined during his good old casual days. He becomes a thoughtful and helpful father to his teenage son, and the scene in which he imparts some wisdom to Mason during their hiking in the forest took me back to how frequently I and my father had frank conversations as climbing a mountain near my hometown (and we still do that whenever we get a chance).
And it is poignant to see Olivia’s hard efforts slowly coming to fruition despite many frustrations in her life. While she made regretful mistakes including her disappointing marriages, she keeps moving on, and she eventually finds herself on the other side of lecture room after finally getting her master degree – and we can say she did everything for her children as a good mother. Hawke and Arquette have a nice moment between them during the house party scene after Mason’s high school graduation, and we see two people more at ease with each other than before; both had a fair share of disappointments from their failed relationship, but now they feel happy and proud to see their son on the verge of adulthood.
Watching the actors becoming older on the screen, I reflected on how I have become familiar with Linklator’s works during last 10 years. While I enjoyed “School of Rock” (2003), I somehow did not notice its director, and then “Before Sunset” (2004) took me to “Before Sunrise” (1995). While “Waking Life” (2001) is a very intriguing dream-like parade of ideas which can still baffles and fascinates me, “Bernie” (2011) is a bizarre, hilarious black comedy fueled by one of Jack Black’s best performances, and “Before Midnight” (2013) is a fantastic experience for anyone who enjoyed “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” like me.
His movies are usually smart and intelligent while sprinkled with offbeat spirit, and “Boyhood” is no exception. The conversation scene between Mason and his friends and a couple of older boys turns out to be wittier than expected although they are accompanied with several cans of beer, and I also like a long conversation scene between Mason and Mr. Turlington (Tom McTigue), a teacher giving Mason a terse lecture which sounds a little too harsh at first but then is turned into something more like a sincere advice. Like Mason, I thought I was trying hard during my graduate years, but my adviser professor always gave me a similar lecture like that. Looking back from this point, I think I should have tried harder with more focus as he demanded – it really could have prevented me from wasting a lot of my precious time.
I think the movie feels a bit dragged around its ending, and I became a little impatient during that part, but this flaw does not seriously damage its monumental achievement on the whole. Like Michael Apted’s the Up documentary series, the movie superbly and hauntingly captures that fleeting movement of time in our life, and it equally recognizes bitterness and hopefulness from that aspect. During my developmental biology class, I learned that our cells are equipped with same potency during the early developmental stages, but they are all eventually differentiated into different types of cells which will respectively contribute to our daily biological activities, and there is usually no going back as they are bound to age and die. Everyone in the movie gets older in the end, and there are many things they will never get back in their life, but, as told to Mason by one supporting character during the final scene, life can sometimes amaze us with unexpected things, and I guess that is a reason good enough for why we have to keep going in our life, even if it has no meaning at all from the beginning.
Late Roger Ebert used to tell that, after watching a great film called “Fargo” (1996), his partner Gene Siskel told him, “This is the reason why I go to the movies.” I believe I saw something great from “Boyhood”, and I am willing to tell you that this is the reason why I go to the movies. This is a boy’s life specifically, but you will see yourself as looking into his life.