Boyhood: One boy’s life, from real to reel

The cinema has always been a place of escape. In the early days the sanctuary it offered was obvious: a chance to slip free of the humdrum tedium of everyday life and savour instead grand spectacle and epic struggle, to gawp at battles of good and evil on which the very fate of the world seemed to hang. But sometimes films offer escape in the opposite direction: a flight from the mayhem and violence shaking our world and a chance instead to be immersed in the quieter business of ordinary life.

That chance came for me thanks to the much discussed and critically garlanded Boyhood (opening in South African cinemas on Friday September 5), which follows a child as he grows from six to 18. The film’s unique conceit is that the boy in question is played by the same actor throughout, having been shot in chunks every year for the past 12. We see him, and those playing his sister and his parents, age before our eyes.

There is an immediate power to this, of seeing the round, open features of childhood narrow and sharpen into those of a young adult, of seeing the curious, wide eyes of a boy become the watchful, wary eyes of a man. Speeded up — 12 years condensed into under three hours — every change is astonishing. 

Sitting in the dark, we become like an irregularly visiting relative, shocked to see how much the little one has grown, at how the puppy fat has given way to gangly teenage limbs, to see stubble on one who moments ago, or so it feels, was little more than a toddler gazing up at the sky.

It’s hardly a surprise that a visual medium such as cinema is bewitched by this idea. In 1998, before Big Brother had ever been aired, The Truman Show imagined that the ultimate reality TV programme would follow a single individual from birth, putting every moment of his life on screen.  But that was fiction. In the real world, the photographer Frans Hofmeester has produced a YouTube sensation by filming his now teenage son and daughter for 15 seconds every week from the day they were born. Over a time-lapse video, you are witness to one of the most mysterious, profound processes of human life — growing up — accelerated into four minutes.

But the magic is more than physical. As those hooked on Granada TV’s Seven Up series will attest, more fascinating still is the change on the inside, watching as character is formed. 

That documentary saga began with the director, Michael Apted, interviewing a clutch of British seven-year-olds in 1964, and he has returned to them every seven years since. Viewers have come to know Tony, Bruce, Sue and the others as if they were family members.

The original brief was to reveal the breadth of the class divide in Britain. The end result was a serial work of art telling a universal story: although our lives might be shaped by where we began, they are shaped again by events, luck and, above all, love.

It’s easy to see why the artist of ambition is drawn to such an idea. For people who invent people, it must be frustrating to reveal a mere slice of their creations’ lives. How much more satisfying to depict the span of a full life. That was the project of William Boyd’s absorbing fictional memoir Any Human Heart, recalling a single life in full but it clearly grips Boyhood‘s director, Richard Linklater. 

His other great masterpiece is the trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, which follows the same actors playing the same couple over two decades, from carefree youth to complicated, harried adulthood.

Although those films have both romance and glamour, what makes Boyhood so fascinating is its deep interest in the everyday. The homes, the cars, the bowling alleys are in backwater Texas; the cycle paths are overgrown, the dustbins visible. There are no big plot twists; indeed, not much of a plot at all. There are events: new partners for Mason’s single mother, Mason’s 15th birthday, Mason’s high school graduation. But these are life-cycle events, common to most of us.

There are moments when our conditioning as cinemagoers prompts us to expect high drama. In one scene, 13-year-old Mason is playing with a dangerous circular blade on a construction site and we brace ourselves for bloody disaster. But it doesn’t come because, usually in life, it doesn’t come. Most times, most of us get by. 

One of the most dramatic scenes, charged with meaning, is when Mason receives an unwanted haircut. The film is as small and incremental as everyday life. Linklater is a poet of the quotidian.

And it makes you wonder whether this is how we will come to remember our own lives: a series of episodes, some of them seemingly insignificant, that somehow lodge in the memory. The jump into a lake with your dad, the night you realise there are no elves, the teenage kiss in the back of a friend’s car. 

The urge, watching Boyhood, is to attempt to find a connecting thread with which you might weave an explaining narrative. We do something similar with our own lives, looking back at this experience or that decision, attempting to craft a coherent story. But it is only ever an attempt.

Somehow all this ordinariness adds up to something extraordinarily poignant. Parents of young children who wept when they saw Toy Story 3 — sobbing with the animated mother as she sent her son off to college — may do so again this time, sharing in the heartbreak of goodbye, the ending of a childhood: one we ourselves have seen unfold. 

But the poignancy is there from the very beginning, with the opening shot of young Mason looking skyward. On the TV news, home video footage of a young child always suggests tragedy: such videos only ever appear when the child has come to great harm. Here the pathos is gentler. It is the certain knowledge that these days of innocence cannot last forever, that one day this boy will become a man.

Boyhood is, of course, bound to be outgrossed by the blockbusters: the CGI-enhanced Transformers, Marvel heroes and apes. In a visual culture saturated with the unreal, with games and movies showing what once could only be imagined, the hyper-real universe of Mason and his family feels like an antidote. 

But perhaps its true appeal is that, when the world is in flames from Gaza to Kiev, the intimate quiet of a single, ordinary life feels like a great escape. — © Guardian News & Media 2014

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Jonathan Freedland
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