Boyhood is a languidly told narrative film with a fantastic, if gimmicky, hook: The film was shot for three days every year over the span of 12 years.
Richard Linklater is no stranger to using experimental techniques in mainstream films. In his breakout 1991 film, Slacker, he wove his camera through seemingly disconnected people just going about their lives in Austin. With Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), he had animators and artists digitally paint over every frame of film to create a surreal, rotoscope effect.
More recently in 2011’s Bernie, he interwove the narrative of the film, featuring Jack Black as the titular character, with interviews of the actual people who lived in the town with Bernie Tiede during the real-life events dramatized in the movie.
In the case of Boyhood, the movie leaps ahead a year every 15-20 minutes or so and leaves us with a really interesting document of one kid growing up around Houston and San Marcos, Texas. There are stories that carry through year over year, but they are never trotted out in obvious or pedantic ways. The filmgoer is forced to do a bit of work to fit the pieces together. That’s where the power of this film resides.
As I was leaving the theater on Saturday, two seemingly disparate things popped into my mind: Comic books and the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. The Seurat hangs on the wall in the Art Institute of Chicago. Comic books, while chock full of potential to rise to the levels of great art, are generally regarded as puerile, disposable pop culture printed on cheap paper and meant to be consumed like candy.
What could these two things each have to say about Boyhood?
The painting, if somehow you’re not familiar with it, is famous for being huge, colorful, vivid, and composed of meticulously arranged tiny dots. Unless a viewer gets really close, the dots resolve themselves into a really nice painting of people relaxing and enjoying themselves at a park. The painting takes advantage of the brain’s urge to find patterns and put pieces together, convincing us that we’re looking at a painting and making lines and connections where none exist. It kind of begs the question: does the painting exist on the canvas or in your head?
In 1994, comic book writer and illustrator Scott McCloud published a book called Understanding Comics. I read it at the time and don’t think I’ve re-read it since, but there was a concept in there that has stuck with me through the years.
McCloud talks about the little gap between panels in a comic strip, which he calls “the gutter.” The point that he makes about this space is that because there are still comic book illustrations in the panels on either side of it, the gutter is where all the real action takes place. Again, the human mind takes the two still images and fills the space in between them by engaging the imagination.
Boyhood is a movie that will give back to you whatever you bring into the theater.
My girlfriend and I were talking about it afterwards, and she remembered reading a review where the writer described Patricia Arquette’s character as becoming more nagging as the film went on. I had a very different experience. I saw a woman who had to put her life on hold when she had children but eventually got her feet under her and discovered herself professionally to become a strong and confident independent person.
I don’t think either interpretation is wrong, though, and that is one of the truly excellent aspects of the film. There is never a fine point put on it, no agenda or story to drive home. This is a really nice document of the course these people’s lives take over 12 years, and the two-hour, 45-minute running time seems economical next to the amount of story imagined in the gaps between.