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Boyhood: A New Standard for the Narrative Film

In the years since its announcement, our minds have been spinning with excitement and anticipation for Richard Linklater’s ambitious project Boyhood- and it did not disappoint. Filmed over twelve years, the movie would guide viewers through the childhood of a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from ages six to twelve. Throughout, we witness the struggles of his fractured family, experiencing stages of American youth, and ultimately his remarkable emotional growth.

Boyhood has made history in the cinematic world, and not only owing to its exciting twelve-year shooting schedule. In and of itself, Linklater’s masterpiece demonstrates the effectiveness of patient and simple storytelling in capacity that is rarely (if it has ever been) reached. By allowing Mason’s story to carry itself, and presenting his audience with a straightforward, episodic emotional journey, Linklater has achieved wondrous effects, setting before us a story that resonates deeply within each of us.

Making Art From What Already Is

As an audience, we are asked to sit patiently as we perceive Mason’s emotional evolution from his young childhood to older adolescence, or from the position of observer to that of active participant in the world. We willingly oblige. The pace Linklater sets is comfortable and consistent with that of our own thoughts- neither jarring nor layered with overt attempts at temporal (or visual) manipulation.

At that, Boyhood stands not as a stylized and re-imagined version of reality, but a revelation or realization of the cherishable epic that is youth. Richard Linklater unearths unspoken truths simply by writing episodically. He does not force the events of his character’s life into a defined story-arc, but allows the film’s narrative contour to emerge from a series of episodes or snapshots. In this, he reminds us that our lives are as such- not usually rising, climaxing and falling as Hollywood’s prized tales would suggest, but unfolding in different directions and pushing and pulling us as they will.

Genuine Storytelling at Its Finest  

In a way, sitting in a theater and watching the life of a character (and actor) genuinely unfold is an eerie way to spend an evening. It feels as if we are given a naked view of Mason’s youth, family, troubles, joys and experiences as he navigates what are arguably the most sensitive years of a person’s life. Viewing a life in this way seems strange and possibly wrong; but it is being granted passage into this position of rare viewership that gives Boyhood its spark.

We know and love Mason by the end of this three-hour exposé, but as an author loves his character or brother loves his sister. We become slowly aware of his take on the world; and, by the end of the film, when he finally becomes the active thinker and (perhaps) photography student that he endeavors to be, we are able to notice the world as he might. Of course, this is not by happenstance. This dynamic and remarkably authentic version of empathy is the product of Richard Linklater’s careful filmmaking and writing.

Take, for example, Linklater’s sparing and calculated use of stunning landscape shots or complex, eye-catching camera work throughout the film. For the most part, he keeps it simple- allowing the film’s visuals to serve only the story. However, in moments like the film’s ending scene, when Mason ventures with friends into a gorgeous, rocky, open Texas landscape, we are granted a magnificent series of wide angles, capturing the beauty of the location. This rare visual treat aligns flawlessly with Mason’s emotional state at this point in his story. He is, at this point, able to take in this moment for the sake of its beauty, as we are. Before this point, as Mason was perhaps unable to do so with the scenarios provided, we too were limited to his varying levels and qualities of perception.

We see this effect bringing magnificence to the whole of Boyhood, whether it be by accentuating visual tension in cases of emotional tension, withholding visuals that exceed Mason’s emotional reach, or providing visual relief at times where Mason’s mind is at peace.

Boyhood’s success calls upon filmmakers and writers to follow suit. While a large part of Hollywood is spilling-over with complex, overworked storylines and thrilling, pleasing special effects, this independent masterpiece captures our hearts and minds just as well, if not more successfully. Richard Linklater demonstrates the excitement and quality that comes along with patience and temperance in storytelling and filmmaking.

Boyhood is just finishing up its run in theaters in the United States. If you haven’t yet seen it, we recommend that you do!