You’ll feel old many times when watching Boyhood. But not in a negative way, like, for instance, when you go to a rock concert and find yourself surrounded by screaming teenagers younger than you, and a quick look at the bar area is enough to realise that their parents are waiting for the gig to end, holding their sons’ sweatshirts.
No, the way the 12-years-in-the-making effort from director Richard Linklater will make you feel old is subtler, and has more to do with the fact that the majority of us were there from 2002 to 2013, the specific era he chose as a setting for the story. This decade is far enough from today to look at it as a previous chapter of your life, but it is not perceived as a past lost in time. And the end is recent enough to consider the model of the camera the protagonist holds at the end of the film (a Canon EOS 5D, for the record) as a piece of gear some of us will probably buy in the next few weeks.
The director’s idea of shooting scenes regularly and intermittently with the same cast over several years, following the life of a boy called Mason from the age of 6 to 18 is not new. In this respect the first title that comes into my mind is the British documentary series Up, which follows the lives of fourteen children and has been shot every seven years since 1964. While in this interview for Film4 Linklater explains “the mechanics of it”, as he calls this peculiar way of shooting, the Wikipedia page for the film reminds us that there were several cases based on similar premises.
What Linklater manages to achieve is to play with time on screen avoiding well-known conventions, such as the tired superimposed “x years later” indication, working instead on the editing and using temporal ellipsis to cut from one period of the actors’ lives to another. The passing of time is also told visually through technology, gadgets and devices: the Game Boy, the Xbox console, the Wii, Apple products from desktop computers to iPod and iPhones (some of them, such as the iMac and the MacBook, also seen in their evolution through the years), a skatecycle, the Canon camera I was telling you about… Yahoo! Movies listed all “the pop culture ephemera that passes through the movie” here. You can play with these items in the time capsule section on the film’s Facebook page.
A third way of playing with the 2000s in the film is of course using the music. Boyhood features a clever use of a rich and never invasive soundtrack, from Coldplay to Sheryl Crow, used not only as a background or for strictly narrative purposes, but as a mark of time shifting, revealing the impact of pop culture in nowadays’ life. Samantha waking up Mason by singing Oops!… I Did It Again by Britney Spears is remarkable in this respect (apply the same thinking to the craze for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
I hope not to sound too sentimental, but here and there Boyhood, which gained one of the most like-minded scores on Metacritic, is genuinely moving. The film shows the efforts related to keeping a family unite despite the failures of relationships, the problems of childhood and parenting (including alcoholism and domestic violence), as well as the struggle between school, academic and work expectations, the pressure of society compared to out-of-the-box creativity and the place in life we are supposed to find while growing up.