“We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process.” (Anthony Lane’s review of Boyhood in The New Yorker, July 21, 2014)
In Richard Linklater’s wonderful film, Boyhood, we see a boy and his family grow up throughout 12 years of real rather than simulated aging. Time itself is one of the lead actors. Toward the end of the film, the boy, Mason, talks with a young woman he meets on his first day of college. “Seize the moment,” they conclude about the adage, has it backwards. Actually, “the moment seizes you.”
Every one of Boyhood’s 164 minutes seized me through its assemblage of ordinary moments that constitute life. At my urging, my 23- and 26-year-old daughters went to see the film. They liked it, but both said it was more for middle-aged people than young ones. This strikes me as true, but why?
Perhaps a fundamental difference between how my daughters and I perceived the film stems from the fundamental difference between how children and adults perceive time. For kids, time passes slowly, excruciatingly or deliciously so. Adults, on the other hand, want to stop if not reverse the clock. They have a consciousness of aging that children lack. Linklater simultaneously captures a child’s moment-by-moment experience and the palpable nostalgic ache of adulthood. Longing for what is lost to time itself adds an extra dimension for the viewer old enough to have moved midway through time’s trajectory.
During one of Boyhood’s earliest scenes, Mason’s mother hands him a can of paint and asks him to cover up stray marks in preparation for moving. Mason whites out the lines on the door jamb marking his and his sister’s heights—measurements that are a yearly ritual for any family. We don’t know how six-year-old Mason experiences the moment. Perhaps he is eager to complete a task for his beleaguered mother, perhaps he’s annoyed that his sister chats on the phone while he works, perhaps he’s sad about the friends he’s about to leave behind. But surely the child feels the disruption of the present moment, not retrospective longing as his paintbrush obliterates the record of growth spurts.
Such nostalgia is the purview of adult viewers, if not Mason’s mother, who is mostly too harried and pragmatic to feel its pull until she is on the brink of the empty nest. That’s when time’s passage wallops her. As she despairingly imagines it, everything’s over in the blink of an eye,
For much of the time Linklater was writing and filming, “Always Now” was his working title. But the film might also be called “Looking Backward.” Again, it’s the difference in perspective between young and old, and between the young and old viewer. One unfolds to new possibilities while the other feels the sharp poignancy of what is already gone.
Maybe that’s why when young people get married, “Sunrise, Sunset” makes it onto the band’s playlist not for the newlyweds, but for their parents. And why Boyhood makes it onto my, but not my daughters’, all-time-favorites list.
How has your perspective on time changed with age? And if you’ve seen Boyhood, what did you think of it? If you have kids who saw it, what did they think?