Last month, members of Miami International Film Festival’s Miami Film Society were treated to a private screening of one of 2014′s essential movies, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Linklater is one of the American cinema’s quietest great directors. His most resonant obsession is the passage of time in our lives. An earlier trilogy of films – Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) – examined two fictional people created by the same two actors at three different nine-year intervals, and how the weight of time and experience changed their characters, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
Boyhood one-ups the Before trilogy – it examines fictional people created by the same actors, over 12 consecutive, real-time years, in one whole movie. Its main character is a Texas boy named Mason (who is 6 when the movie opens and 18 when it ends). Or is it? Such is the richness of Boyhood that everyone will find a highly personal reading. For me, there’s significance in the fact that actress Patricia Arquette, who plays Mason’s mother, receives the film’s top billing. Is Boyhood really about motherhood?
When the film opens, Mom is already separated from the college boy she dated who fathered Mason and his older sister, and is struggling as a single parent. She’s perhaps 30, and in the subsequent years we see her yearn to leave a mark and do something that fulfills her, beyond motherhood. She dumps a jerk of a boyfriend and works hard to support her kids and take college classes so that she can teach a subject she’s really passionate about. As you watch Arquette change physically over the years, get thicker and more focused on a woman’s desire to age gracefully, Linklater builds up to a moment that I will go out on a limb (it’s only July) and say is the pinnacle moment of American cinema for 2014. It’s a moment of transition in her relationship with Mason, and it’s a moment where Mom confronts everything that she ever thought her life would be about.
In Chris Weitz’s A Better Life (2011), raising a child was, for Demian Bichir’s character, “a reason to live”. For Arquette’s Mom, it’s perhaps more like “a purpose for being”. Arquette is a phenomenal, under-utilized actress. She draws on her technique and finds a deep honesty that speaks for an entire class and generation of American culture which perhaps somehow believe that their children will learn from, and improve upon, the lives of their parents. But Boyhood, like many other wise movies about parenthood, wonders if they merely repeat us.