“Boyhood” opens with a shot of the sky, blue and clouded, then pans down toward a young Mason Jr. — the protagonist of the film — lying in the grass, staring upwards, sunlight reflected in his eyes. This shot embodies the quietude with which the film, told in a series of montages that symbolize both the mundanity and beauty of youth, moves. “Boyhood” is narrated in an almost dream-like sequence, flowing smooth and slow, with a confidence in the subtlety of its story that shines through.
Directed over a span of 12 years, “Boyhood” follows the same actors as they transition from childhood to adulthood, an ambitious coming-of-age epic that garnered much attention in the 2014 awards cycle for the uniqueness of its production. The film was nominated for five Golden Globes (winning two) and for six Academy Awards (winning one).
Beneath the film’s ostensibly simple premise, it is easy to see why it has received critical acclaim. Through the individual lens of Mason’s development from age six to 18, the viewer is transported through a vessel of meticulously curated snapshots chronicling the universal navigation of identity and the tumultuous highs and lows that come with growing up. The film peers into the liminal space that children of divorce inhabit and the sleepy static of Texan suburbs. It is a tapestry of intricately woven threads, a documentation of the blurry threshold of memory and the intimacy of family.
While the film itself is nearly three hours long, time in the narrative feels transient and fleeting, slipping through the fingers like sand. Small details like sunlight over the roof of the family’s minivan, or a still-shot of Mason Jr. eating cereal with his sister and mom, permeate the film’s subtext.
“Boyhood” never overtly tells the viewer how much time has passed. It simply illustrates time’s impermanence through shots of Mason Jr.’s physical development, as well as carefully panned shots incorporating pop-cultural relics of the years: a TV Box, baggy pants, sugary mid-2000s hits crackling through a radio. Time here is a distorted concept, but it is one full of movement and fluidity. Part of the film’s charm is its transmutation of nostalgia, the ordinary moments which serve as an artistic mirror to the reality of suburban childhood.
The basic foundation of the film’s storyline is almost deceptively mundane and linear. We follow Mason Jr.’s progression from elementary school to his freshman year of college. Mason Jr. is the product of divorced parents: Olivia, his mother, who raises her two children while studying to be a professor, and Mason Sr., a nomadic musician who is unable to conform to the conventions expected of suburban fatherhood. Additionally, Mason Jr. has an older sister, Samantha, who is perhaps the more outgoing, responsible counterpart to his brooding, artistic self.
For the most part, the film is shrouded in a languid, golden haze, absent of melodrama. Olivia and Mason Sr. develop new relationships, Samantha heads off to college to forge her own place in the world, and Mason Jr. grows into his love of photography and begins to interrogate the world through a more cynical lens.
Outside of the main cast, people come and go, highlighting the unresolved nature of relational fractures that often come with real life. The children whom Samantha and Mason Jr. befriend during Olivia’s second marriage, for example, are never seen again after Olivia divorces her second husband and relocates. “Boyhood” is a window to middle-class, cookie-cutter suburban life — both reflecting the reality of this American cultural conception and exposing its cracks.
Due to its unorthodox structure and pace, part of the film’s appeal lies within its relatability to the viewer: the nostalgia of seeing Mason Jr. and Samantha grin with excitement upon receiving the next Harry Potter book, or watching Olivia pack the car before driving her children to soccer practice and seeing your own mother reflected within this scene.
However, while “Boyhood” is risky and innovative in its production, it is safe and conventional with its execution. The film follows characters who, save the parents being divorced, belong to the heteronormative, white, middle-class nuclear family model. For those with identities existing outside of these conventions, it may be more difficult to find the charm or nostalgia in a film like “Boyhood.”
Additionally, some of the dialogue feels at-times heavy-handed, such as an overly preachy and verbose scene in which Mason Jr. denounces the role of social media to his at-the-time girlfriend, complaining about how no one lives “in real time” anymore. For a film whose strength lies in the subtlety and quietude of its narrative, the at-times sanctimonious dialogue feels somewhat forced, stunted, and out of place.
Despite these flaws, “Boyhood” is an impressive cinematic feat, displaying nuance and restraint in its portrayal of the individuality of Mason Jr.’s life yet also the universality of the obstacles he undergoes — the search for meaning, identity, and belonging in the world. The film offers no grand climax or resolution. It simply moves with clarity and confidence, illuminating the liminality of memory and youth and the confused, directionless movement with which all our lives flow. The credits roll, and the viewer is left with a feeling of both longing and peace, wondering where the time has gone, yet looking forward to the uncertain beauty of what lies ahead.