Boyhood (2014) : An instrumental lesson on the fleeting nature of existence as we know it

 

‘Everyone’s always saying seize the moment. I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking, you know, like the moment seizes us’

 

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A six year old Mason, portrayed by Ellar Coltrane

 

As an American coming-of-age drama written and directed by Richard Linklater, Boyhood is distinctive amongst other motion pictures of a similar pedigree in that it does away with the customary rules of visual storytelling in favour of something far more elusive and true to life.

Starring Ellar Coltrane as the starry-eyed Mason Evans Jr, the up-and-coming actor effortlessly conveys the internal conflict reminiscent of a young person wise beyond his years and endlessly curious about the world around him. The opening shot exemplifies this, as the camera pans onto the six year Mason sprawled on his back across a patch of grass. There is no expository dialogue or overlying narration to describe what is going on through his mind. In fact, aside from the faint resonance of Coldplay’s 2000 hit Yellow gently pulsating gently in the background, there is little else to indicate what is going on at all.

What we do see however, is this child’s face scrunched up in immersed contemplation, his eyes fixed on some indeterminate spot in the sky as if he expects the reason for life itself to drop out of the heavens and onto his earth-stained jeans, and this is a theme that is dependably revisited and scrutinised over the film’s duration.

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Mason at school

We witness Mason and his sister Samantha ( Lorelei Linklater ) grow and mature into respectful human beings right before our eyes, despite the superfluous amount of complications they face along the way. Coupled with a tumultuous upbringing as a result of their mother’s (Patricia Arquette) failure to fill the void left by her previous marriage to their biological father Mason Evans Sr, (Ethan Hawke) and her subsequent string of failed relationships with a motley group of emotionally volatile men, it is nothing short of a minor miracle that these two turn out to be as well rounded as they do.

Perhaps most notable in this slideshow of ill-matched partners is abusive stepfather Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella), whose alcoholic and ultra-disciplinarian tendencies only get progressively worse as time goes on. While hardly a central part of Mason’s story, his presence is a particularly odious and dubious element to this otherwise atypical choice of storytelling, as he takes joy in verbally abusing his wife and children on a number of occasions.

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Abusive stepfather Bill Welbrock, as portrayed by actor Marco Perella.

One excerpt worthy of dissection is when a disgruntled Mason is forced to endure a crew cut trim against his will so that he will, according to his misguided stepfather, resemble something more of a ‘real man’. The horror in his eyes as his long locks are sheared off for no other discernible reason other than he has to do as he’s told is one the earliest instances of Mason’s palpable awareness and scepticism towards the idea of social values and change, even if he is powerless to do anything about it.

This specific era of Mason’s young life culminates in a nail-biting sequence that is arguably the most suspenseful that Boyhood has to offer in its slightly exorbitant run-time, as this contemptible excuse of a man not only physically assaults his cowering wife, but explosively launches a glass within touching distance of Mason in some kind of warped attempt to satisfy his thirst for power.

In a justified move, Olivia makes the decision to up-and-leave Bill for her children and her own safety, yet there is poignantly no marked follow up to this traumatic trail of events, as the next sequence skips forward to a few years on where Mason’s blossoming interest in girls takes precedence over past childhood traumas.

‘At first, Mason hangs back at the film’s edges, watching and absorbing, and it’s only when he reaches his teens that he starts to feel at ease in the spotlight

Robbie Collin

Daily Telegraph’s film critic

This section of the film is also quite conspicuous in that it leaves the fate of Bill’s own two biological children unknown. They are presumably left to deal with their father’s cruel vices and the viewer is only left with some vague notion of hope that they make their own escape from such a dispiriting situation. It is notable that these are not the only characters to fade from the limelight without any real explicable reason behind their absence; in fact it is not only unusual but seemingly predetermined for other characters to feature during significant periods of Mason’s life, only for them to be nowhere to be seen as the narrative spontaneously skips forward at its own leisure.

At times like this it’s almost as if Boyhood wilfully neglects to provide the audience with the full picture in favour of a carefully selected series of moments. As such, it is as though the viewer is only seeing a hand-picked montage of Mason’s story and not every minor detail of what happens to him – as though Linklater is trying to accentuate the fleeting nature of time’s passing and how existence passes by in the blink of an eye. Saying this, the transition from one time period to another is seamless and observational, and the film hardly suffers because of it.

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Mason throughout the years, as portrayed by Ellar Coltrane

In this way, time itself is the central conceit of Boyhood and all of the characters are subject to its ravaging effects whether they like it or not. Like the myriad of planets that orbit around the sun in our solar system, Mason, Samantha and their parents all revolve around this omnipotent, unstoppable force as to it swallows up moment by moment until all that is left are some hastily cobbled together memories and a fragmented sense of self.

‘Boyhood is in touch with a simple, urgent truth: life is terrifyingly short. While our childhood in progress seems like an aeon, to our parents it flashes past in a dreamlike instant’

Peter Bradshaw

The Guardian’s film critic

This is not to say that Mason’s story hereon after is any less interesting after this decidedly tense intermediary act, as the film’s experimental structure allows us to watch as he quite literally ages before our eyes. His youthfullooking face gradually catches up to the translucent blue tincture of his eyes, his jawline lengthens and his various questionable hairstyle choices all add a sense of authenticity to the proceedings. It is also quite noticeable that it is in this segment of the film that he really comes into his own as the central character of the piece, in spite of his ethereal and detached personality.

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Mason with short-lived girlfriend Sheena ( Zoe Graham)

Saying this, as a character he doesn’t typically drive forward the scenes he’s in, which can present some problems. He’s more of a passive onlooker, as opposed to someone who deliberately goes out of his way to oppose a set of beliefs that clash with his own moral compass. A case in point of this is his reaction upon being gifted a personalised copy of the Bible and a gun by his God-fearing, if well intentioned grandparents on his fifteenth birthday. Rather than lashing out or showing any outward sign of discomfort, he accepts the gifts as nonchalantly and sheepishly as if he had just received a rather sentimentally-worded birthday card.

In this sense he’s almost too unremarkable a character to root for; at least in the conventional way in which we are accustomed to witnessing protagonists written in fiction. Yet in a offbeat fashion this makes him more relatable as we accompany him on his precarious journey from adolescence to adulthood. After all, not everyone can afford to or has to be a warrior or a hero; they simply need to react to life’s problems in a human and empathetic way, and Mason certainly does this in spadefuls.

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Mason takes up photography

In what appears to be a case of art imitating life, a bohemian-esque Mason takes up photography as a hobby and for a while this provides a source of enjoyment for the growing teen. That is until his photography teacher, upon noticing his potential combined with an unfortunate lack of prudence, brings his starry-eyed dreams of success crashing down to earth and informs him that he’ll need to work extremely hard if he actually wishes to make a career out of the practise. In true success story fashion Mason then goes on to win the silver medal in a state photography contest, as well as being awarded a substantial amount of college scholarship money – all of which help inspire him to depart for pastures new and live away from his family for the first time.

It is within one of Boyhood’s final scenes that his mother delivers one of the most emotionally stirring monologues that the film has to offer and one that will undoubtedly resonate with parents everywhere. As she watches her son excitedly pack for college and anticipate the future in his own philosophical and inquisitive way, the realisation kicks in about how short life really is, and, being unable to withstand her internal anguish any further, she breaks down in tears.

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An emotionally distressed Olivia watches on as her son departs for college

Mason in turn stands idly by, as though he is unable to fully comprehend the depth to which she, being much older and wizened to the ways of the world, has been smacked about the face with the truth of her own fragile sense of mortality. Yet while he does not seem to know how to comfort his distressed mum, it is clear that he does not judge her for her outburst either. This is one of the few scenes of the film that reminds us of how Mason, despite having a visionary outlook on the world, is predominantly still a child, and a vastly credulous one at that.

Nevertheless, throughout the narrative’s duration he has slowly become more and more aware of the vulnerability of his aging parents and the fact that it is all too easy to resent them for being flawed people. So rather than attempt to find the suitable anthology of words and actions to try and comfort her, he does the one thing he knows he can do – he chooses to embrace the moment and live by it. This all fittingly culminates on an ending sequence atop of a picturesque mountain summit at a Texas-based state park, where he and his new found college mates quite literally rejoice at the setting of the sun and the sheer emancipation they find in seizing the moment and the celebration of life itself.

 

 

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Mason and new love interest Nicole (Jessi Mechler)

 

If nothing else this innovative approach to film-making is a lengthy seminar on the brevity of life and all of its ups-and-downs, emotional turmoils and tumultuous obstacles. It may be seemingly exempt from the conventional rules of film critique going by the positive response its garnered from critics and movie goers alike, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s particularly flawed because of this. In this way Boyhood is less a form of entertainment than an intense study on the human experience; one in which conveys a slow-burning, episodic form of storytelling that encompasses the fragile nature of our lives, memories and more importantly, the gentle yet firm way in which it encourages us to run towards those precious moments in life before they flare and fade forever…

 

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Did you know?

 

 

Emotional support helplines:

Samaritans :116 123

Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)

Sane Line:0845 767 8000

Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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