There have been some really beautiful reviews of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood published – many of them marvelling at the cinematic feat the director known for the Before series has achieved by filming his actors for little bursts of time over 12 years.
I was most drawn to Drew McVeeny’s very personal review at HitFix, in which he describes the impact the film had on him as a father of two boys, going through a divorce. Reading about his fears and sadness and concern and dread for what this experience will mean for his children, I felt myself tear up at his honesty. I can see why the film touched such a raw nerve for him, as it opens with a family already broken by divorce.
I am not a parent, but I am a child of divorce. The film touched a nerve for me too, in a very different way. Like Drew, I have spent time trying to write about it, and then turning away, for it has been too much at times to try put into words.
It’s been almost 20 years since my parents divorced. For the first 14 years of my life, we stayed in the same house. But in the aftermath of the divorce, we moved. Often. The family at the heart of Linklater’s movie – Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the director’s daughter Lorelai as his sister Samantha, and Patricia Arquette as his mother Olivia – move homes early on in the film, so Boyhood for me began to open up memories I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
I’ve since moved many times – most recently from South Africa to New York, a dislocating, if thoroughly exciting experience – but nothing takes away that sting of leaving behind friends and the back garden where you used to play, for the first time. Even after so many years, I found the memories the film stirred up for me – particularly of a Dad I adored moving out – a little too much to think about.
So I allowed myself to get lost in the simple marvel of the film.
How Linklater makes us feel part of this family, smiling knowingly at the pop references of Olivia reading Harry Potter to her children and Samantha dancing to Britney Spears. How he incorporates news events we’ve lived through – like Barack Obama becoming president and the war in Iraq. How he cast the roles of each of the family members so perfectly – Ethan Hawke plays dashing yet damaged so well. And ultimately, how the director achieves, at the end of it all, the sheer physical feat of showing a boy in Texas with a passion for photography, growing up before our very eyes on the screen – without any kind of special effects or stand-ins.
But, as Drew explains, the film sits with you and stays with you. I found that to be true, even for months afterwards. What you are willing to see and experience upon the first viewing can change when you watch it again.
When I saw it in January at the Sundance Film Festival, I was a few days into a break-up, with someone who had become my little piece of home here in the big city. I wanted to lose my disappointment and sadness in story on the big screen. And I did.
When I watched Boyhood again, a week ago, ahead of a press junket for the film, there were no plot expectations for me to hide behind. This time, I let myself ‘experience’ the film.
Like Drew points out, the period of ‘boyhood’ is never really over. So it is with ‘girlhood’, if you will. We see the children grow up, but we see the adults grow up too – or at least try to. Coltrane’s character is the central figure as the boy, but Arquette as mother is the one who holds it all together – even when she is struggling to. Through experiencing her mistakes onscreen, I saw the mistakes of my own mom, ones I thought I’d let go of. Arquette’s character physically grows and changes too, but it’s her intangible growth as a mother that really got to me.
In watching the film again, I found that to be one of its greatest gifts. I didn’t even realize it properly until I was sitting in front of Arquette, talking to her about the catharsis of playing a role so similar to her own life story – becoming a mother at the age of 20 just as she was offered her first big movie role.
Arquette’s Olivia was doing the best she could. My mother was doing the best she could. Sure, I knew this, but I don’t think I really knew it until I came to the end of the film. It seems trite to say, but the little bit of healing this film brought with it, is worth far more than the cost of a movie ticket.
I felt a little unprofessional for tearing up during the interview with Arquette, but reading Drew’s thoughts, and in trying to articulate my own, I know that it’s all part of unwrapping this wonderful movie. So do yourself a favour, and don’t just watch it once. Maybe you too need to marvel at it once, before you really see it.