Boyhood: Richard Linklater’s time travel

BoyhoodLinklater’s Boyhood, shot over twelve years, is both moving and nostalgic as it captures the real life journey of Mason, (Ellar Coltrane), and sister Samantha, (Lorelei Linklater), from six to eighteen, from preschool to Mason’s first day at university. The film charts their sibling rivalry, as they navigate new homes, schools, bullying, step-siblings, and cruel stepfathers. Studying his parents through binoculars, as if the mysteries of adults could be divined, he and his sister rebuild a relationship with their absent father, managing his small betrayals, like the car he promises Mason. “Is there really magic in the world?” he asks his father. It turns out there’s broken marriages, abusive fathering, a ‘parade of drunken arseholes,’  as well as moments of connection.

Ethan Hawke, an old Linklater collaborator, gives a naturalistic performance, as Mason senior, his fathering skills step up through abandonment, to manic weekend dad, breaking through his children’s monosyllabic response to real communication. While he evades his son’s questions, “Do you have a job/do you have a girlfriend”, he helps them navigate relationships, school, self esteem, sex and contraception, taking them to baseball, bowling, camping and music jams, while being human and letting them down. “I wish I were a better parent’, Mason Senior is trying and failing, but doing the best he can.

The same is true for mothering, as the film follows Patricia Arquette’s character Olivia, through three failed relationships: Mason, not ready to commit to fatherhood; Bill, her psychology lecturer and a violent drunk; and ex army veteran Jim. Liv puts herself through night school working and raising the kids, while managing her difficult and sometimes violent partners. Liv rages at being “someone’s daughter, then someone’s fucking mother!”, until suddenly it’s school graduation, and her ex finally acknowledges the great job she did, single mothering and getting their kids safely through to adulthood.

The power of Boyhood lies in Linklater’s craft, returning seamlessly over the seasons and years to characters that offer the audience the truth of time passing. The film segues through the family’s ages, time gaps and stages, as the Iraq War, Harry Potter, Facebook and Obama, form the backdrop for Linklater’s poignant reflections. This creates a nostalgia that feels more like life than art. And it is both. We witness ageing, spreading, skin clearing, and hair colours changing, as the characters negotiate childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, first love, and middle age.  Linklater’s script is his usual mix of philosophy, psychology, and soul searching, delivered through all the characters we encounter. Ethan Hawke talks, in interview, of watching himself age over the course of filming, and finding this ‘devastating and awesome, depressing and enlightening’.

The film describes life as a series of moments, which Liv lists tearfully, as her son prepares to leave for University: “wedding, divorce, her masters… the day I thought you had dyslexia…what’s next, my funeral?!,” she cries. Linklater speaks to us of our dreams and disappointments, moments of joy and pain that make up both Boyhood the movie, and our lives. “I thought there would be more”, Liv cries, from her midlife vantage, her material ‘stuff’ accumulated, to be sold or recycled, her years of mothering suspended in this powerful moment of her son’s leaving.

What’s the point?,” muses Mason, as the cast’s meditations on life form the substance of Linklater’s oeuvre. Boyhood’s remarkable and evocative testament to life seems to answer his question. We glimpse a majestic Mid Western landscape, as Mason is set to experience some of his own special moments, that, like the rest of us, will punctuate his journey.

Jacqueline Palmer, an integrative psychotherapist, is in private practice in North London and runs “A Return to Intimacy” workshops. With an MA in Film from the BFI, she has practiced photography and published poems and short stories on her path to becoming a psychotherapist.