I walked out of Richard Linklater’s newest film with a bitter taste in my mouth. It dragged on, too much of it felt largely uninteresting, its references to the passage of time (primarily through music and technology) felt shoehorned and clunky. I told this all to my friend as we walked out of the cinema, explaining that the last third of the movie began to grate on me. Everything felt like a corny cliché—the film hardly felt like it had been written at all.
He told me that he’d loved it. “That’s the point, man,” he said. “Life is corny as shit.” My friend is three years older than I am. I am only just exiting boyhood myself, but my companion had the distinct advantages of hindsight and distance that made viewing the film so fulfilling to him. But in talking to him, the obvious dawned on me: Mason, the proverbial ‘boy’ of the film, is my age—his journey was the American equivalent of mine (give or take a divorce).
“You are Mason,” my friend said. “You are literally him.”
I came to terms with this quickly, and I began to revisit the last third of the film in my mind. That last, awkward period of Mason’s life, the end of his teen years and the conclusion of high school—of course it frustrated me to watch on-screen: I myself had just finished living it. In fact, my frustration was a sign of the film’s brilliance—that it could capture so well the conversations, the feelings, and the moods that the last twelve years carried with them and gave to me. So of course it irritated me—of course it was annoying to watch. It was my recent life, my recent moods and phases, all displayed without any sugar-coated romanticism at all.
See, when Mason takes blurry and obscured photos through the nets of a football field when he’s meant to be capturing the game, and he’s proud of it even though it isn’t very interesting at all—that’s what artistic teenagers do. And Linklater knows this—that this is the done thing, and is exactly the way kids operate. He makes no effort celebrate or condone Mason’s journey through angst and moodiness and art—he merely observes it. He captures it in film and allows it to play out before us, and we, the children of the past, nod at these moments and say: “Yes, this was our life.”
I often laughed during the film and was the only one to do so. My friend would also laugh at other inopportune times. Granted, we were two of three in the cinema on a Thursday night, but all the same—the important thing is that there were these times that we each laughed alone. Sometimes, it was because there was a passing reference that tickled a certain memory imprinted by the year, or by Soulja Boy, or by a 20Q Ball. And sometimes it was an awkward laugh, which was drawn out from us by the inherent ‘realness’ of the moment. See, we’d both been Mason ourselves, more than once in our lives. We’d both asked whether anything meant anything, and had ranted naively about exactly how and why the world is a piece of shit. We had both, in our time as boys, been in a state of total cluelessness, a lack of self-awareness, lost without any idea at all of what was going on within or around us. And sometimes that’s hard to watch, hard to remember—which is why all we could do was laugh.
So why didn’t I enjoy that last third? Because it was real, and because I’m not necessarily used to teenage cinema being so real—I’ve so often come to expect a beautiful and impossible nostalgia akin to what was captured in Perks of Being a Wallflower back in 2012. But Boyhood makes no such effort. Instead of romanticising the young pretensions of youth, the film allows them to play out as they actually do. One scene includes a conversation between Mason and a girl who rambles about how she’s reading To Kill A Mockingbird for the third time, and about how she gets teased for having never read Twilight. She’s annoying. She’s cringeworthy. She’s real. She feels like childhood. I once was her and I know it.
True, not every part of the film works, and some parts of the film that I felt were shoehorned initially I still believe were shoehorned. I think some of the music was very, very forced (Soulja Boy, for instance, because hip-hop is hard to use as a soundtrack at the best of times). Some of the shots of old technology and fads also feel like they were edited in simply because stock footage of a circa 2006 iPod was something they had shot and felt the need to use. And the biggest fault, on top of these, are the few strange and gimmicky characters who exist seemingly only to show the passage of time. There’s one character who, after being told to clean his life up by Mason’s mother, comes back an hour’s runtime later and—lo and behold—he’s cleaned his life up. He then delivers some weird and unrealistic advice to Mason and his sister, before quickly leaving again. This, along with a strange high school infomercial-esque scene about peer pressure, does not work at all.
But there are many wonderful things to say about Boyhood, and all of it is to do with the truth it contains, and the strange sensations conjured by that truth. I found myself, midway through the film, feeling a pang of nostalgia for what had occurred a few scenes before, years earlier in Mason’s time. I felt myself looking back at the movie’s rendition of childhood with the same sense of nostalgia I feel when I look back on my own. Because even though, in the moment, it sometimes felt awkward and strange and corny, when I looked back I remembered a feeling that had passed, a moment that was lost, a time that had ticked over.
Am I writing about my childhood, or his?