Only after living with Boyhood in my head for a few days did I realize that I had watched the movie all wrong. This review will give nothing away, but perhaps it will help you watch it if you haven’t yet or re-consider some aspects of the film if you have. Essentially, my very watching of the film illustrated what the film wanted me, the viewer, to realize: that you have to live life in the moment and stop looking for what is going to happen next.
Now, I know how trite that sounds. And I only half agree with the premise. Christians do live for today, but in a certain sense, “carpe diem” is overrated, for we also live for tomorrow. The mantra of Dead Poets Society is true when the day that needs to be seized has come; but not every day is such a day. Indeed life is full of ordinary days, but days that are special beyond words. This film must be watched in a certain way, because what it depicts is a series of vignettes, none of which in themselves are especially interesting. The modern film audience is always waiting of the next shoe to drop, the next thrill, the next twist. As I watched the film, I realized I had an impending sense of doom or disaster because, well, fiction has programmed that into me.
But that isn’t what this film is. It is much closer to a documentary that, because of its incredible 12-year shooting span, follows an ordinary boy in ordinary times with ordinary problems. There really is no climax and the twists and turns are likely no more ironic than the twists and turns in your own life. If I watched the film again, and one day I’m sure I will, I’ll watch it very differently. I’ll try to appreciate each scene and vignette for what it is, not for what utility it serves for the plot. Because there is no plot. The only forward movement is the unending beat of time.
Only later does the film’s genius emerge. In a way no ham-fisted or even good coming-of-age tale can do, it will begin to tap into your own childhood. (While I am a man, the son of a single mother, much like the main character, I do believe women will find much to relate to in the film, even though the subject is boyhood.) You will recognize the scenes in the film as scenes from your own life. And not extraordinary scenes. Indeed, I recalled moments in my life that I had forgotten. But this film thrives not on the arcs of life, but the times in between, the times when life is really happening, and it gives them back to us. We had forgotten them, you see, because we were too busy worrying about the next event.
The film will also highlight the true innocence of childhood and the subtle ways that innocence is lost and adulthood begins. It really is hard to know when boyhood ends and adulthood begins. And for most of us, it isn’t one moment that gets us there. It’s many. And most of them are hard, but some of them are great; seeing violence, falling in love, breaking up, sharing a parent with a new person, stern talkings-to by mentors, and finally, leaving home. All of these bittersweet moments chip away at our innocence and usher us into the adult world. What Boyhood does is cause you to relive those moments or even identify them for what they were. It will help you to see how you came to be you.
It will also help you to appreciate the ordinary times. As the father of two, I can tell you it is way too hard to appreciate the time when children are young. They are a love and joy that is comparable to nothing else And yet, it is the hardest job in the world and you are often ready for the day to end. You’re glad when they move from the crawling phase to the walking phase, the diaper phase to the toilet phase, preschool to Kindergarten, in part because they rely on you less and your days get a bit easier. You find yourself constantly thinking, “I can’t wait until I don’t have to change diapers anymore” or “I can’t wait until they can bathe themselves” or “I can’t wait until bedtime.” That is normal, because children and their messes and their crying is exhausting. But Boyhood - and I’m not even sure how it did this - was a reminder that those are precious moments passing you by. How foolish to dread them! Now I know why everyone always told me to enjoy them because they go fast.
Perhaps, because in 2.5 hours, you see the passing of 12 real years (i.e. a different actor doesn’t play the older version of a character), you are reminded that time is the one gift given that is completely beyond our control. And because it is told from the child’s point-of-view, it is a reminder to parent’s how children see the world. In the rush to get on to the next thing, this is often forgotten by parents.
We are always looking forward to the killer vacation, the greatest birthday party ever, the next big event. But as a pastor, I’ve been thinking again what family members say about someone when they die, and it is rarely those big moments that are ever mentioned. It is ordinary things about ordinary people. “He always used to do this…” for example. That is the stuff of life. And Boyhood captures it, and it took this kind of filmmaking to capture it well. The 12-year shooting wasn’t a gimmick; it is a critical technique to communicate this reality.
So if you haven’t seen the film, see it. But don’t watch it like you do other films. Open your mind and your memories and let the film really become your own story. Because that’s what it is. Don’t worry about what is going to happen next or what plot lines are developing. They don’t matter. Life doesn’t work that way.
A final thought as a Christian pastor. This film - perhaps not immediately, but in time - can cause one to think about life and appreciate it anew. It can lead to some bittersweet recollections, memories of those times in your life that you couldn’t wait to get through but now you see you wouldn’t be you without them. It seems to me, that without an ultimate, without hope for reconciliation in the future, these memories would not be bittersweet, but just plain bitter. Life is full of difficulties and joys. Without the hope - rooted in historical events and the ministry of Jesus - that my family and our life together is not truly sacred, such a film might lead me to despair. But because I have a narrative of hope buried within, I dread less the passing of time. Indeed, I might appreciate it more now.