My memories of the American South are few and far between, but they start on a sunny spring day in 1997, when I walked off a plane from Beijing and onto Mississippi soil. For the next three years, before a permanent move to Canada, I would aggregate impressions of this so-called American life—scenes that to this day fill me with a nostalgia for both what was, and what could have been. Driving past golden farmland, skirting swamps, country songs curling from the radio. Going to college football games, then Bible school. The sheer magnitude of the Fourth of July. The list goes on—America, after all, is excess. I couldn’t help but be filled with it.
To an outsider, or maybe just this outsider, there are fundamental Americanisms – a set of characteristics typical to American culture that is both grossly generalistic and vastly true: a love for pastimes, performances, polar politics, popular culture. These are but a few, part of the essence of America that floated up to the border, which I greedily devoured. After all, there’s something so likeable about Americanisms, something about that braggy but genuine affinity for oneself. (I’m fond of Kanye West for the very same reason: how can you fault someone for being unapologetically in love with themselves?)
The most likeable Americanism, of course, is the Dream, if you believe in it—that with the right work ethic, we all get what we want, no matter what small town we come from, what our parents did, how we fucked up as teenagers. Maybe that’s what the presenter at my screening of Boyhood in Toronto thought about when he said, “It is one of the most important American films you will see this decade.” And by the way—he was right.
Boyhood is 12 years old when I meet it for the first time, but it feels like I’ve known it all of my life. Shot in a total of 39 days, spread out across these twelve years, the film has an inherently impressionistic quality—a dreamy in-and-out state not unlike recollections of childhood itself. In its 164 minutes, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a quiet, introspective Texan boy, and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter) grow up in the wake of their divorced parents’ foibles and fortunes. These parents are played—heartbreakingly, soul-stirringly well—by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, whom we see mature, both literally and figuratively, alongside their children. And we root for them at every conquered step, we do. It’s hard not to: spend a dozen years with anyone, on screen or otherwise, and you’re bound to love them a little.
Boyhood is one of those unspoilable movies. There are no major plot points; no one dies and no one gets hurt, at least not permanently. We watch this atomized family go through several moves, gain a member, lose a member. It is a modern American narrative, a thick weaving of single parents, academics, alcoholics and veterans, immigrants, religious conservatives, and bohemian liberals. Olivia (Arquette) marries then divorces her college professor, and—a degree and a teaching job later—her student. Mason Sr. (Hawke) trades in a bachelor musician life and a muscle car for a lovely conservative wife, a newborn and a minivan. Like protons circling a nucleus, the kids grow into themselves but never quite disband from their parents, despite all that movement. If there is a qualifying test for teenagers, Samantha passes with flying colours: ostentatious hair, petulance, the inability to talk about contraception without dying of embarrassment. And Mason, the quiet one, the one who watches it all happen—we watch molt before our very eyes.
In direct defiance of its title, Boyhood shows an endearing aversion to the stereotypical highlights of growing up. Linklater chooses, instead, to document the in-betweens, the concurrencies: we don’t see Mason fall in love or smoke pot for the first time—they kind of just happen. We blink, and he’s taller, and his voice has dropped, and his acne has come and gone. As if to say, so it goes. He is six when the movie begins and nineteen when it ends and, despite the glaring omissions, we don’t ever feel like we’re missing much.
But what the film lacks in personal chronology, it makes up in cultural milestones: in one scene, Mason Sr. is filling his children’s heads with a diatribe about the Iraq war; in another, he is encouraging them to steal McCain signs from a stranger’s lawn. Later, Mason Facetimes with his father, makes a sarcastic quip about the NSA, decides to quit Facebook. As he grows, America grows, too.
These are but a few ways in which we glimpse Linklater’s obsession with personal histories: although never specifically dated, Boyhood will always tell you what time it is. The soundtrack in itself is our personal metronome. They are songs so popular, so embedded in our cultural memory, that they still carry with them the emotional ghosts of who we were when they were last played on repeat. When the film started, I cringed hard: I came along, I wrote a song for you, Chris Martin crooned. I remember that time: it wasn’t pretty. Then, we check off Britney Spears (my first CD, by the way), Lady Gaga, Bright Eyes, Flaming Lips, Gotye. And, with these music cues, Linklater is casting Boyhood in amber—a memory so specific it could never be mistaken for another time or place.
“It’s a big element, isn’t it, of our medium?” Linklater asks, in an interview with Sight & Sound. “The manipulation of time, the perception of time, the control of time.” And if cinema is the art of time, he is a master of the art—from his fictional histories emerge a truth beyond the medium, that of experiencing life’s passing itself. If the Before trilogies are a microcosmic representation of his obsession (three days, 18 years apart), we can only look at Boyhood as the Linklater macrocosm: 12 years, in three hours. It is filled with what he does best—documentations of life in suburbia, streams of consciousness, revelations of personal philosophies.
Here, what he captures is not the story of a boy growing up, but boyhood as identity: the edification of one small American dream. We learn about Mason as he learns about himself—in time. He, unsurprisingly, is just as obsessed with the concept—we watch Mason pick up photography as a hobby, and then as a major. There is no pretension: his photographs aren’t revelatory, just a product of his attention. And the same can be said for Boyhood. Its smallness is its charm. At ten, Mason asks his Dad: “There’s no such thing as real magic in the world, right?” And then, at nineteen, watching the sun duck behind canyons in the Big Bend, we see that he gets it. The magic is the world. It is here now, and now, and now.
It’s called Boyhood, but parents will hurt. They will ache for Olivia, who laments all the past milestones as her nest empties in front of her. All this, and for what? What do we work for after we get what we worked for? We all just watched someone grow up and leave us. But for me, it was no loss: the magic was in reliving my childhood alongside Mason, triggered by the same songs, nostalgic about the now-obsolete objects I used to hold dear, recalling just how vivid and important some events felt until they weren’t, and how some of them I still replay in my mind. Boyhood maps vignettes of an alternate life, a fundamentally American life, but it hits so very close to home all the same.
“What’s the point? I sure as shit don’t know,” Mason Sr. says to a newly-graduated Mason towards the end of the movie, speaking to him in the rare, confessional frankness of a parent-now-peer. “We’re all just winging it.” And what if that is precisely the point? Like children’s heights notched into a yellowing door frame, our lives are but a collection of measured growths. As Ethan Hawke said this, I looked around in the movie theatre, the light from the screen catching on the wet eyes of spectators all around me. It’s a lesson that takes a whole lifetime to learn: we always think there will be more, but this is it, and it is beautiful while it’s playing. Tears start running down my face (again—it’s not the first time). The woman a seat down from me quiets a small, happy sob, and smiles at me when our eyes meet. Maybe that’s the most American thing about it, I think. We’re all here, just winging it. From my seat, I can hear small sniffles all around me, the sound of our collective growing pains.