Boyhood

Article by   February 2015
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It is rarely possible to predict with any certainty which of today's crowd-pleasers or critic-pleasers will secure for themselves a place as classics in the annals of film history--which will be taken as the defining films of their era, not merely for their cinematic qualities but for the aptness with which they capture certain periods in history, as It's a Wonderful Life did in the 50's or The Graduate in the 70's. But we might make an exception for 2013's Boyhood, Richard Linklater's rule-breaking anti-epic which earned one of the highest critic scores ever and, after a Golden Globe win, seems well on its way to the coveted Best Picture Oscar. It warrants recognition not merely as a bold experiment in filmmaking that somehow pulls off its extraordinary gamble, but also as startlingly lifelike rendering of what it is to live in twenty-first century America. 

For Christians, this second quality gives it a third level of interest--as a jarring reminder of the banality and emptiness of our post-Christian age. We are often tempted to imagine that rebellion against God will manifest itself in monstrous acts of wickedness or dissolute orgies of sensuality. We forget the great Augustinian insight that evil is defined first and foremost by its emptiness and impotence, and so perhaps the surest mark of a life without God is an aimless, apathetic wandering. This is what Boyhood depicts for us, insisting that this is simply how life is. That said, the Christian life is one lived by faith, not by sight, and as we walk in this valley of the shadow of death, life is often a long, hard, confusing slog, unadorned with miracles or flashes of divine insight into the meaning and purpose of it all. So for us too, Boyhood may serve as a much-needed reminder that life is rarely a fairy tale or even a noble tragedy, but sometimes just one darn thing after another.

Before elaborating on those points, however, let me summarize the premise and plot (such as it is) of the film. Thankfully, it is about as spoiler-proof as a film can be, since nothing of any consequence happens. The bold experiment that makes the film so remarkable is the fact that it was filmed not in a season or even a year, but over the course of twelve years, following its four main actors through life as they experience the petty joys of childhood, the heartbreaks of parenthood, the vicissitudes of romance found and romance lost. The main character, Mason (played by the hitherto unknown Ellar Coltrane) is 6 at the beginning of the film and 18 by the end; his sister, Samantha (played by the director's daughter Lorelai) is two years older. Their divorced parents, played masterfully by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (both nominated for Academy Awards), fill out the main cast, with other characters coming and going for a couple years at a time as they move from town to town, school to school, relationship to relationship. Given that the two child actors were completely untested and none of the main cast were under contract, Linklater's commitment to this twelve-year project was a bold gamble indeed, which alone makes for compelling viewing.

However, this gamble might appear to be little more than a gimmick until we realize that it is simply one aspect of Linklater's commitment to provide one of the most uncompromisingly lifelike renderings in the history of cinema. The dialogue is neither wooden nor flickering with wit--it is always simply what you or I might find ourselves saying in the same situation, neither more nor less (sometimes, indeed, a painful reminder of just how trite, silly, and canned many of our social interactions sound). Moreover, the episodes and interactions depicted are rarely if ever pregnant with significance, they are simply the stuff of daily life, to the point that despite my own totally different upbringing (in a conservative Christian household and church, with happily married parents), I found myself saying over and over, "Ah yes, I remember those conversations." The achievement of the film is even more startling when we realize that the script could not have been written, at least in more than outline form, in advance. In various scenes characters discuss the Iraq War, put out yard signs for Obama-Biden, and discuss the merits of smartphones and social media, all things that would have been unimaginable when Linklater began the project in 2001.

This unscriptedness, far from being a mere necessity imposed by the nature of Linklater's project, reflects its central conviction: stuff just happens. We are accustomed to films driven by high drama or at least extraordinary coincidence, when the seemingly insignificant event ten minutes in sets in motion a train of events that dominates the film, until a sudden unforeseen reversal prompts a dramatic shift in the characters' fortunes. But we rarely stop to consider how rarely life is like this (which is part of the reason we enjoy such films--since they promise us more coherence than we regularly experience). In Boyhood, there are few trains of events set in motion, and those that are are fleeting and inconclusive. Sometimes the film teases us, as life does, into thinking that something extraordinary is about to happen, but it doesn't; life goes on. The film reminds us that despite the clichéd modern call to "follow your dream," most of us go through life a little unsure of just what our dream is, and in any case, stand little chance of achieving it. More often than not, our ambitions are frustrated, our purposes miscarry, circumstances seem to conspire against us, and we have to make do with the hand that we're dealt.

All of these features of Boyhood are perhaps lesson that Christians too can take to heart. Too often inspirational books or sermons hold out to us the false hope that just because God has a wonderful plan for our lives, we can expect to discern that plan, and thread a steady and meaningful path through the chaos of life. But we are rarely so fortunate. And yet as Christians, we can take comfort in the midst of the "vapor" that the author of Ecclesiastes reflected so profoundly upon; for we know that we are not alone and our works are not in vain.

The characters who meander their way through Boyhood are not so fortunate. In a particularly powerful scene near the end, Mason's mother breaks down in tears as he packs up to leave for college: "This is the worst day of my life!" she cries. "I...I just thought there would be more." For twenty long years she has labored and saved and struggled as a single (occasionally-married) mother to bring her children to adulthood, and realizes that now she is not sure what she has left to live for. Mason's father, who has given up his dream to be a rockstar in order to settle down with an evangelical Christian woman (whose faith is treated with surprising respect) and work as insurance agent, has little more to offer. When Mason asks, "So what's the point...of everything?" he says simply, "I don't know, but neither does anybody else." Inasmuch as he does have a philosophy on life, it's a somewhat weary mode of Epicureanism: "Can't we enjoy what we have when we have it?" 

And sure enough, the characters in Boyhood seek to divert themselves with love, sex, alcohol, art, music, and the particularly modern pastimes of video games and Facebook. Inasmuch as Linklater does try to offer a critique of modern life, rather than a mere portrait, it is perhaps in this area of technology. In the early scenes, Mason and his friends can be seen more often than not glued to a screen of some kind, though as he matures, he develops a healthy skepticism of the tyranny of media, explaining to his girlfriend that he has quit Facebook because it undermines real face-to-face relationships, and speculating about a future when we become mere cogs in a digital machine. And Mason, more than any other character, does have some sort of answer as to how to cope with the emptiness of his life, an answer which seems to mirror Linklater's own. He takes refuge in photography, seeking to pick out the extraordinary amid the ordinary, or rather, to call our attention to the intrinsic value of the ordinary in its very ordinariness. Obviously, this is what Linklater's film itself is seeking to do: the only response to the emptiness of life is to elevate life to the level of art, to see the beauty in the everyday.

In this, Linklater's vision offers an instructive contrast with that of Terence Malick, whose To the Wonder I have recently reviewed here and whose Tree of Life can stand alongside Boyhood as one of the great achievements in filmmaking this century. In Malick's Christian vision of the world, there is profound beauty in the ordinary, but only because the ordinary is never only ordinary; it is a vessel overflowing with the grace of God, a sacrament of his presence. The characters in these recent films of Malick find purpose and consolation in the midst of life's aimlessness by learning to seek the face of God in the face of their fellow man. Linklater's characters must make do without any such consolation.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com
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