Seeing Ourselves in ‘Boyhood’

Just lie here and think.

I went with my friend Gabe to a movie theater in New York City, and instantly I knew: I was part of an event. This was no fleeting Netflix stream — we were there to see, and to experience, “Boyhood,” the film about an American boy’s childhood and adolescence. While the plot of the film might have convinced some to buy tickets, its concept made the line go around the block. Richard Linklater, the director, writer and producer, shot the film over the course of 12 years, allowing the actors’ aging to show on film. “Boyhood” follows Mason and his family through marriages, divorces, hairstyles and relationships, tracing the small details of their experiences — camping trips, sketchy late-night hangouts, walks home from school.

Ellar Coltrane, captured from ages seven to 19, plays Mason. We meet him as a first grader in Texas, adorable with his bowl-cut and childish curiosity. He collects arrowheads and contemplates the origins of wasps. He throws pillows at his sister Sam, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, when she wakes him up with her (pretty great) Britney Spears impression. Mason’s dazed moments of childhood, though, occur as adults spar around him. His mother (Patricia Arquette) does her best to remain resilient as she enters relationships that fall into downward spirals, and often bottles of liquor. Meanwhile, his estranged father (Ethan Hawke) seems to be in his own eternal boyhood, living in Alaska and writing songs on his keyboard before returning to Texas and the periphery of Mason’s life. But both struggle to improve, as does everyone surrounding Mason. Even minor characters — his friends in high school, his mother’s second and third husbands, his roommate in college — seem caught in attempts to change, no matter how long they’re on screen.

The day after seeing “Boyhood,” Gabe and I discussed the movie, rehashing every detail that mirrored our childhoods — and there were many. He then told me, though, that after summarizing the film for one of his colleagues at work, he was met with an underwhelmed shrug. “Why would I see a boring movie about a kid’s life?” The man had said. “I’d rather live my own.”

Like a jersey-wearing sports fan, I instantly disregarded the negative opinion of the movie I so loyally loved. How could you disregard Linklater’s elegant way of telling such a simple story? Your life isn’t viewed with dreamy camera angles, I wanted to say to him. Your life isn’t supplemented by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Your life isn’t perfectly soundtracked with mid-2000s Coldplay, Sheryl Crow and Soulja Boy.

That dismissal of “Boyhood,” however, is somewhat valid. When we go to the movies, we don’t often seek what we already know. We go to be consumed by Michael Bay explosions, we go to experience the folds of a foreign love story, we go to sit in a velvet chair and lead ourselves away from normality. We’ve been taught, time and time again, to expect from fiction what we can’t from our lives: fast-paced plots, solutions, themes that lead us towards little bits of understanding.

But because “Boyhood” doesn’t satisfy our craving for excitement, it forces us to see beauty in what often seems mundane. It’s easy to focus on experiences that come preloaded with action or moral messages, but most aren’t so coherent or clearly meaningful. And yet, “Boyhood” finds something valuable that thousands want to watch. It’s the recognition of our own childhoods — for those of us who grew up in the United States in the 90s and early 2000s, the tangible details aren’t wholly unique. He has friends who ride Ripsticks. Lady Gaga’s music videos show up twice. There was none of the otherworldliness of a sci-fi or the convincing hope of a rom-com, but Gabe and I still left feeling the dreamy afterglow that tends to follow more escapist films. But this time, the high came from the validation of our own stories as something worth being told.

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