A large part of writing a review is telling what experiencing the work in question is like—the feeling one gets when reading, or watching, or listening, or looking. This can be difficult, especially in works that reach deeply, that dig into seldom explored territory. If I say that watching Richard Linklater’s remarkable new film Boyhood, which traces the life of a boy named Mason from age 6 to 18 in rapidly changing segments, is like reading a book, I need to clarify. The idea is not that the film could be “read” like a book, each element analyzed to consider how it functions within the work as a whole; that goes without saying. The film, instead, acts on you the way a book might act on you, which is to say, it doesn’t force itself on the viewer, and in fact it asks the viewer to force itself on it, to make sense of it, to keep going with it, and to sit with it, for a while, to see where it's going. And the film does go somewhere which might remind viewers suspiciously of their own lives.
On the most basic level, we get to know, or at last understand, Linklater’s characters in a gradual and highly relaxed fashion. In many scenes, the characters, as they age together in different locations in central to West Texas, simply sit and have conversations with each other. In so doing, they teach us about themselves. We learn, through his introspection, that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a thoughtful boy whose greatest spiritual investment will always be in his own ruminations. His mother, played here with a great sense of regret by Patricia Arquette, reveals herself to be caring but lacking in judgment, which will sadly shape her children’s lives, causing them to move from house to house throughout their childhood, sometimes suffering abuse from their mother’s poorly-chosen partners. In a very subtle and moving performance, Ethan Hawke plays their father, likable on the surface, but a near-archetype of a shady, untrustworthy dad. We notice all of these things, and we pay attention to them, and we think about them, because Linklater forces us to. There aren’t any exploding cars in the film. No one secretly turns out to be a robot. There are no musical numbers. One is free, then, to make observations, to interpret, and to absorb. One might find one’s self making judgments, of a sort. Though the kids' father is erstwhile in many respects, he has far better chemistry with his children than either of the partners their mother chooses after him. We watch Mason's sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) developing from a mannered, funny child into a cool adult with odd phrasing (when it’s her turn to make a speech at her brother’s graduation party, all she says is “Uh… good luck.”), and the difference is noticeable. She’s lost the forwardness she had as a child, but it’s metamorphosed into something more interesting, or more deeply rooted within her. These are nuances that are not necessarily always brought out in films, given so many films' debt to drama itself, which demands a structure, a pace, which does not encourage extensive lingering. Linklater has achieved a strange marriage of two works: one film which tells the story of a life, and one which tries to be interesting without telling any story at all. The elements that might interest a viewer here—family dynamics, the effect of aging, outer and inner growth—require meditation, and they don’t require the framework of a plot to be meaningful. This is the kind of license taken frequently in literary works--writers from Chekhov to Ann Beattie to Karl Ove Knausgaard have availed themselves of it--but not seen as frequently in film.
The structure here is a very matter-of-fact one--you might miss it if you were weren't looking, so seamless is Linklater's deployment of it. As has been widely discussed, Linklater made the film over a twelve-year period, taking the actors aside for a couple of weeks each year to film a short segment, a handful of minutes. The development in the film is based simply upon the passage of time, a strong reminder that nothing the characters might do could make the years move any more quickly, or slowly. Mason's mother refers to this, at the end, when she cries that she thought there would be “more” before her son left for college—but as we know, nothing makes the days any shorter or longer. The time Linklater allowed himself for the film seems to have tinged the entire venture with a contemplative mood. The years pass without fanfare. The only way we know the characters have aged, or that time has passed, is by the change in their appearance. We are forced, then to look at these people, really look at them. We watch the mother put on weight, slightly, as she gets older; she begins to look more settled, if not complacent. We watch the childen's father lose his youthful spark, fill out a bit, mellow in his mood; his laughs don’t come as quickly, there’s not as much sense of destructive mischief in his eyes. And Mason grows larger, more stoop-shouldered, his features increase in size, he becomes less comfortable in his skin, more self-conscious, his voice acquires the faint rasp of someone who’s been shouting at a concert for the last several hours. These, then, are the events we witness, and they become as interesting as an exploding half-human car might be in another film. This sort of motion, in which inner changes and developments loom largest, forming the topography of a work, is an example of something a book can do that a film, simply by virtue of the medium, might not do so easily. You sit with a book, quietly, and read it, and things such as characterization, a description of someone’s eyebrows, a well-placed phrase, become gigantic. They become large enough to sustain the work, in some cases, and they may be the things you take away most from the experience. But this viewer has found that, often, films must offer a slightly greater plenitude of elements to sustain themselves.
In a sense, saying that watching a certain film is like reading a book might seem critically useless. How can one compare two experiences that are so radically different, and that access such radically different parts of the brain? You can’t hear a printed book any more than you might read a montage out loud. Also, how can one make generalizations like this? And yet, and yet: everyone approaches artistic experiences from a different starting point. For this writer, reading is one of the most meaningful, important experiences he might have—there’s competition for that spot, of course, but it ranks highly, up there with love and food. And so there’s a little voice in this writer’s head, chattering away as the Linklater film unfurls itself: Is this as good as….? Is it up to the experience of…? Yes, I know you enjoy it, but is that enjoyment as great as the enjoyment of...? And if the answer to these questions is yes, the experience of watching Boyhood is equivalent to the satisfaction one has after reading a wonderful, spare piece of writing, which is to say one feels moved and quieted, given a fresh awareness of one's place in the world, then that is the highest compliment this reviewer could pay the film.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.