This film has received the best reviews of the year. There is much speculation about its Oscar chances, and many consider it the “popular” breakthrough that its writer-director, Richard Linklater, has been waiting for after over twenty years as an obscure independent, albeit with an international reputation. As most indie followers know by now, it was filmed over a twelve-year period using the same actors, so we got to see all of the characters – as well as the actors playing them – enter new stages of their physical lives in real time. Of course the “real time” is for them, not us. We only age two-and-three-quarter hours during the film.
It may seem that I am writing a simple review of the film, but I am also trying to do something else. Boyhood presents something of a challenge to the viewer, as well as the critic, although not a unique one (as I will discuss in Part IV). We are being asked to appreciate what is a single story about a group of fictional characters. The focus is on how the main character, Mason Jr., grows from childhood (age 6) into young adulthood (18), and how the lives of the other people in his life are also changed. But we are seeing a parallel story at the same time. That second story is an attempt to observe the changes that occur in life – all human life – over the passage of time. This is a tall order, and it can result in pretentiousness and banality, like those “anti-war” films that are meant to show the futility of all war. Boyhood takes that risk and, whatever else you may think about it, succeeds in giving us a unique, thought-provoking experience.
So what kind of experience is that? I’m not going to tell you now. I’ve decided to issue this piece in four stages, each of which will present a different approach to understanding the film. The next part will appear in a week or two, when you, the reader, and I are both in a later stage of life.