Third Way Media MattersSeptember 19, 2014

With discussion questions

The late-summer movie Boyhood has received a lot of attention for its uniqueness, and Matthew Kauffman Smith already did a great job of reviewing it here. It tells the story of a boy’s life from age 6 to 18 and is filmed over a period of 12 years. The main actors in the film age as their characters age.

But the film is more than simply a unique approach to storytelling. It also confronts viewers with the poignant passage of time and how quickly our lives go by.

But the film is more than simply a unique approach to storytelling. It also confronts viewers with the poignant passage of time and how quickly our lives go by. This leads to questions about our mortality and what meaning our lives hold. I’ve listed some key ones at the end which can be useful for any group wanting to go a step further with this film and use it in a discussion or excerpts for a class.

Boyhood itself leads to these questions without parading lessons about what is meaningful or philosophizing about life’s problems. It does so by focusing on the (fictitious) story of a boy and his family, growing up in Texas in the early part of this century.

The film opens in 2002, when Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) live with their single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Their estranged father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who’s been gone for 18 months, visits them.

Olivia moves the family to Houston, where she goes to college. Later, she marries her psychology professor, and the blended family includes his son and daughter. An alcoholic, her husband becomes abusive, and Olivia takes Mason and Samantha and leaves.

As the years pass, Olivia becomes a college teacher and remarries. Mason Sr. also remarries and has a new baby. Mason Jr. is a quiet, introverted kid who moves from his interest in video games to girls to pot and, finally, to photography. His new stepfather and others tell him he needs to be more responsible and get a job rather than follow his obsession with photography.

Richard Linklater, who wrote and directed Boyhood, shot the film in 45 days, a few days each year, and he added to the script each year, inviting the actors to help in the writing.

Many of his films employ lots of realistic dialogue and occur in what feels like real time. His early film Dazed and Confused is set on the last day of school in a Texas high school. His trilogy films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, each occur over a period of a half day or so.

The characters in those films, as in this one, have plenty of flaws but feel real, even familiar. Mason’s parents make many mistakes and even endanger their children at times. But they also love their kids and want to make their lives good.

Watching this family evolve over 12 years, we feel these tugs to do right, and we feel the remorse of making mistakes and hurting others.

The film is flawed as well, especially in the early years, when the actors are adjusting to one another. Some scenes ring false, such as one of a group of boys talking about sex and drinking when Mason is in eighth grade.

One of the lessons of good storytelling is to use the specific and local to get to the universal. Boyhood is an epic tale, yet it feels intimate. It captures a boy’s life through a relatively few scenes that accumulate details and develop his character to the point where we feel we know him well.

Then we make connections to our own lives, even though we’ve lived in a different time and a different place.

Boyhood is a film that helps us ask those questions while telling us an engaging story.

Possible discussion or reflection questions:

  1. How often do you look back at your life and think, “Where did the time go?” How does it make you feel? Is it a useful question in any way?
  2. When you ask, “Where did the time go?” about your children, how does that impact your relationship now? Does introspection help?
  3. Thinking of the film, what would you do differently about your own life?
  4. What would you like to do with the time you have left?
  5. If the story of your life so far was told on film, what would be the universal learning or application viewers might make?