I tend to get unaffected by nostalgia, and it wasn’t until watching Boyhood, the 12 years in the making new film from director Richard Linklater, that I realised this was due to not noticing how quickly the time in my life was flying by. The central conceit of the film is the journey through the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 to 18, starting with being in trouble at elementary school for daydreaming and ending with him bonding with college roommates for the first time, with different sections being filmed every year over the twelve year period, as the cast grow old before our very eyes. There is no real narrative to the film, as life has no real narrative, and it is instead the pop culture references and changes in hairstyles and soundtrack choices that let us know the shifts between years.
Anyway, the moment I began to get affected by nostalgia was when the film hit 2008, when Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorlei Linklater, who as the daughter of the director offers extra poignancy in being shown growing up alongside Mason) are helping their father (Ethan Hawke) put up Obama campaign posters around their neighbourhood. I naturally assumed we were almost up to date and the film was about to end, before it hit me that a period of time that seemed like only yesterday was actually six years ago. The fact that Mason is only a year younger than I was through every respective year was somewhat emotionally overwhelming, and the fact that the film flew by so quickly did nothing to calm my emotions – it was only checking my phone on the way out that I realised three hours had passed and I’d seen the lives of an entire family over a decade unfold on screen. Like in life, what seems to happen so fast is actually an entire lifetime ago.
As a cinematic experiment, showing the cast grow up across a number of years isn’t an original idea; the 7 Up documentary series has followed a group of people every seven years of their life from the age of seven, whereas director Michael Winterbottom’s TV movie Everyday spanned the course of a few years, filming at yearly intervals, as two young brothers grew up whilst their father, played by John Simm, spends time in prison. However, this is the first time the idea has been done on such a scale. It feels intimate despite having the structure of a full-blooded epic. Richard Linklater is one of the greatest directors in American cinema, and here he perfects the idea of manipulating real time as we follow a close-knit bunch of characters, an idea that he originated with the Before trilogy.
Looking back on my writing, it seems like I’ve just described a film full of novelty pop culture references that made me oddly nostalgic despite having no real emotional attachment to them, rather than the cinematic masterpiece it so blatantly is. The final conversation before the film ends, which like all Linklater films feels improvised even though it was heavily scripted, has Mason and a new college dorm mate discuss life experiences; in a film full of meaningful conversations about nothing, this may be the best. People often waste entire lives fretting over what the meaning of life is, and by showing the course of an entire families life over 12 years, Boyhood conclusively answers that life is about everything. It’s about big things like family, relationships and building a career. Yet equally important are little things like getting drunk and high and listening to bad music and watching bad movies, wasting time not doing your homework, getting ear piercings and painting your nails, trying different hairstyles and making friends and enemies and mistakes and growing into a better person because of it. There is no such thing as “wasting your life”, because everything in life is worthwhile in its own way, and Boyhood understands this – a quietly poignant message that makes this the best, and most profound, film of the year.