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Is That All There Is?

You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, like that! This series of milestones. Getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time that we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you how to ride a bike, getting divorced AGAIN, getting my masters degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending YOU off to college… You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fuckin’ funeral!… I just thought there would be more.

—Mom (Patricia Arquette), Boyhood

It is perhaps slightly on the nose that in a year of overwhelmingly white and male nominees in the major categories for the Oscars, a likely Best Picture winner should be Richard Linklater’s film about how a young white man comes into being. Yet many critics have noted the film’s interest in more than just the titular boy. One critic suggested that Boyhood might be better titled Motherhood, going so far as to claim that the film’s best quality was Patricia Arquette’s strong performance.

But Arquette is not the only reason why “Motherhood” would be an equally accurate title. The film’s split focus between boy and mother offers two different ways of watching it, each premised upon a distinct experience of its innovative approach to cinematic time: the realism of lived time preserved and shared in a story of boyhood, and a story of motherhood as the melodrama of time that is always slipping away. This shimmering boundary between realism and melodrama is most visible in Arquette’s final scene (from which I’ve taken my epigraph). The emotional miscomprehension between mother and son in the quietly climactic moment of his departure for college reveals the divergence between the film’s seemingly entwined stories of boyhood and motherhood.

Shot for a few days each year over a span of twelve years, the film aligns story time with real-world time as we watch both “Mason” and actor Ellar Coltrane grow from six-year-old boy to young man. Critics such as Anthony Lane and Manohla Dargis have praised the film for offering us the quotidian moments of life normally elided by the economical narratives of Hollywood–in Lane’s words, “those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave.”

These critics follow paradigms established by André Bazin, the influential theorist of cinematic realism. Bazin championed films that featured contingent details inessential to advancing the plot, and which conveyed to the viewer a sense of the lived duration of events (which he otherwise saw as distorted by the elisions and compressions typical of cinematic time). Taking any individual sequence in Boyhood on its own (that is, the scenes from a given year of Mason’s life), the critics are absolutely right. Each one perfectly models ideals of cinematic realism, from the period and geographical specificities to the broader uncoupling of narrative causality from emotional significance. But if each individual sequence is exemplary of realism, when these units are combined into the whole work that tells the story of twelve years of life in three hours of screen time, the film takes on a type of pathos particular to melodrama. Film and literary melodrama that makes us cry does so not simply through the characters’ suffering. Pathos is about time: we cry when something is irrecoverably lost–and time is the ultimate object of loss. We cry when it is finally too late for something to happen in the way we hoped it would.

There is no single, privileged point of view that organizes our experience of Boyhood’s scenes and drives its narrative. Viewers who identify with Mason will likely recognize their own life experiences through the realism of individual sequences. Indeed, one Times reader exactly Mason’s age commented that it was “like watching myself grow up,” and marveled at its “beautifully authentic and real depiction” of, essentially, his own boyhood. But for other viewers, the mom’s final monologue better represents the experience and meaning of the film. Watching all those episodes pass by conjures not life’s fullness but its finitude. The tears viewers like me share with “Mom” in the scene when Mason leaves for college stem not from the melodrama of plot events as in more explicitly tragic cinematic narratives—the son who dies before his estranged parent can reconcile with him, or the mother who sacrifices herself for a better life for her daughter. Rather, our felt awareness of the film’s waning running time previews that inevitable moment in which the time of parenthood runs out: “I just thought there would be more.”

If Boyhood does win the Oscar for Best Picture, people will continue to both praise it as a unique cinematic experiment and criticize it as another elevation of introspective masculine narcissism. But neither of these perspectives will be quite right. We have seen real children grow up on film before in Michael Apted’s Up series, and the form even evokes television commercials or amateur time-lapse videos that prick parental sentiment through their condensed depictions of children’s growth. What Boyhood uniquely achieves– and what also sets it apart from the androcentrism of the rest of the Oscar nominees– is how it enables us to see prismatically, experiencing time in both its richness and its scarcity. “Mom, what is it?” Mason asks, uncomprehending of her tears, and with this scene the film reveals how it has told not another story of a man supported by a woman, but rather, two stories about time that have diverged all along.

–Jason Middleton: Takes a picture while it lasts.


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