There are many ways of coming to realize you are turning into a sentimental fool in your old age. One of them is to find tears in your eyes when you listen to a ‘sappy song’ on a cinematic quasi-bildungsroman‘s soundtrack. Which was indeed my experience last night as I finally watched Richard Linklater‘s twelve-years-in-the-making Boyhood (and thus heard Family of the Year‘s ‘Hero‘).
I was once a boy; now, I’m a father. Along the way, I lost my parents, immigrated, changed careers, fell in and out of love, got married, bought a ‘house’ (and thankfully, sold my truck, and moved across the Hudson). Life really is just one damn thing after another; a series of milestones that don’t get you anywhere. The young and the old are equally perplexed by what to do and how and when (the latter’s bodies simply don’t support them any longer in the effort required to maintain the requisite level of befuddlement); you don’t solve any problems; you just make older ones irrelevant and move on to new ones. And at the end of it all, as you lie there, hopefully with the time and leisure to reflect on the narrowing of the aperture through which the dim light of your existence steadily grows a little fainter, you are only too likely to wonder, like Peggy Lee often did, is that all there is? Was all that just a dream? The only moment is right now, and there isn’t anything else. It came and went, long days and short years, agonizing minutes and rapid hours. Life was beautiful, it was ugly; it provoked terror; it made you safe; it was painful, and it was ecstatic. You want to generalize, you want to capture its essence in a pithy formula, but it’s quicksilver, eluding the grasp of your verbal formulations.
A movie like Boyhood, even if as ambitious as Linklater conceived it to be and attempted to realize, was only ever going to capture the tiniest fragment of this sense of life’s innumerable, perplexing facets. But it’s still a brave effort, one underwritten by an acute kindness directed at Linklater’s fellow companions on this long, strange, trip of ours. We make first, a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a bundle of baby fat on legs, and then later, a budding young man, lean and stubbled, into our witness of this earth’s cavalcade; we sense our proximity to his soul, even as we acknowledge our distance from the particulars of his life. I am brown; Mason is white; I grew up in India; Mason in Texas; but for all that, I recognized something of myself in him. And perhaps of all of us. That recognizable fragment does not have to be a large one; all that matters is that the storyteller point to it, and illuminate it, in a distinctive and sensitive fashion. Linklater manages to pull off that rare feat–inducing empathetic recognition in his viewers–with some verve and finesse.
Cinema rarely reaches its potential in this day of the marketing executive-dominated studio; Boyhood shows us what it is capable of.