I’ve been sifting through old home movies lately, amazed at how quickly all these years have passed. And with only these brief snapshots of moments to go on, I’ve been wondering what it must be like to see your own childhood captured in its entirety—to grow up onscreen, like Ellar Coltrane, star of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, did. Linklater shot the film over the period of 12 years, and it follows Ellar and his character (Mason Evans, Jr.) as they transform from boys into men.
The concept is similar to that of those cool aging time-lapse videos, but Boyhood’s scope is much greater. It is not just about one boy progressing from childhood to adolescence to adulthood; it’s about that tricky process of growing up that all humans share. It’s about all the little moments in our lives that are often glossed over in standard coming-of-age narratives: conversations in the car, trips to the bowling alley, unfortunate haircuts. Alongside these moments of everyday life, the film also includes more serious subjects. As Mason grows up he experiments with sex, drugs, and alcohol, and the film does not shy away from depicting the realities of divorce, single parenting, and living with abusive husbands and stepfathers.
Boyhood opens on a blue sky to Coldplay’s “Yellow,” the first song in a very 2000s soundtrack that features Blink-182, Soulja Boy, Vampire Weekend, and Arcade Fire, among others. The soundtrack, along with various cultural references peppered throughout the film, reminds us that we are viewing a history of the recent past. Each chapter of the story takes place at the same time it was filmed. Incidentally, the opening credits reminded me of those of another coming-of-age movie, The Virgin Suicides, which deals with girlhood. But unlike that film, there’s no dreamy aesthetic in Boyhood, which plays almost like a documentary.
It was especially exciting for me to see moments in the movie that we as a generation grew up with, from the High School Musical craze to Harry Potter midnight release parties to the 2008 election season. I can’t think of another movie that captures so much of what it was like to grow up in Generation Y.
One of my favorite scenes is near the end, as Mason drives to college on an endless desert road. He stops to take pictures of ordinary (and somewhat rundown) objects: a rusty lantern, a faded-red fire hydrant, a traffic light in need of repair. Family of the Year’s beautiful song “Hero” plays during this journey that is in many ways the culmination of Mason’s childhood, and the chorus goes, “I don't wanna be your hero/ I don't wanna be a big man/ I just wanna fight like everyone else.” In a movie that plays like a reel of isolated moments, this moment stands out as conveying so much of what Boyhood is about. Mason sees something beautiful and interesting in those everyday objects, just as the movie affirms that the life of an ordinary boy—far from a hero—is worthy of a sprawling, nearly three-hour epic.
It is important to be mindful of what we mean when we say that someone’s life is ordinary or normal. There are valid concernsabout Mason’s boyhood not actually being representative of childhood in America. Writing for The Atlantic, Imran Siddiquee points out that “the popular history of the [coming-of-age] genre has been largely limited to imagining the lives of white kids.” (The attribution of universality to narratives about white males, rather than other groups, is a phenomenon that goes far beyond coming-of-age films, and belongs to another discussion.)
There was a lot of buzz surrounding Boyhood when word of it first came out. Linklater had kept the same cast and crew for 12 years, making it a revolutionary experiment in filmmaking. Linklater also already had a track record of telling compelling coming-of-age stories (Dazed and Confused) and exploring the use of time in innovative ways (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight). The story behind Boyhood may be more interesting than the story in the film itself, but at its heart the movie is an affirmation of the beauty of a life lived ordinarily, whatever that may mean to viewers.