I hate nostalgia.
Let me clarify: I hate the idea that once everything in life was magically better and now everything sucks. I hate the idea that childhood was “easy”; being a kid is filled with difficulties when you’re a kid, and only now that you’ve already conquered those challenges and moved on to new ones does it seem easy to you now. I hate that 40-year-olds whine about today’s 20-year-olds being “the worst generation ever”, but I hate even more that 20-year-olds are already consumed by nostalgia and hatred for the present moment to the pathetic extent they feel the need to put down today’s 10-year-olds and in the process threatening to prove those 40-year-olds right. I hate that people reject anything new and then have the gall to complain when everything’s recycled. I hate Buzzfeed lists of things “Only ’90s Kids Remember.” I hate that we’re wallowing so much in nostalgia we’re not living to create new moments to be nostalgic for. I hate to think Pixar might be partially responsible for this, though I do suspect Toy Story 3 may have set off this wave of premature nostalgia in my generation (though let me be fair, while that movie did make every weeping soon-to-be-college-student want to go back and play with their old toys, Andy never felt the need to trash Bonnie’s toys and rant like an old man about how “kids these days” are growing up “stupid”, so it can’t be blamed for the worst of this).
Which brings me to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie guaranteed to induce nostalgiagasms in any viewer ages 18-22. Yeah, I nostalgiagasmed too. Hell, the sister in the movie gets the exact same damn head-spinning snowy owl puppet I had as a kid; how am I not supposed to feel a joy of recognition? Yet despite all the nostalgia felt in the movie, somehow I’m not worried that it’s contributing to the same toxic nostalgia-overloaded atmosphere that even something as great as Toy Story 3 might have contributed to. What makes this movie different?
For one thing, it’s something entirely new. Not just new as in “not a sequel/remake”, a rarity enough in the summer movie season, but new as in there’s literally never been anything like this, a stand-alone fictional film shot over the course of 12 years following a boy growing up from age 6 to age 18. Linklater might be American cinema’s premiere realist, even when he’s not working in strict realism (even a studio comedy like School of Rock and an animated experiment like Waking Life often feel purely improvised and “real”, even though supposedly someone scripted everything), and Boyhood might be his crowning achievement in that regard. Though the events in Mason Jr.’s life are completely different from the life of the young actor playing him, Ellar Coltrane, he and the other actors (Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as their parents) assisted Linklater in writing the screenplay over the long course of production, and the result often feels like a documentary as a result. Someone’s going to see this movie and have their mind opened wide, thinking “So movies can do THIS too!” and make the next great original masterpiece that’ll blow our minds years from now, and we’ll all be better for it.
Though there’s continuity in character growth and in the evolving living situation, as the family moves around Texas and Mason’s mom continually remarries into troubled relationships, the film’s less a straight narrative than an ongoing time capsule. Its biggest weapon against Buzzfeeditis is perspective. The movie isn’t reminiscing upon a moment, it’s observing and living in each moment, not judging or saying “this is when everything went wrong” or “the culture of these specific years was superior” or anything stupid like that. Hindsight obviously turns some of these moments wistful (Oh, to line up at midnight for a new Harry Potter book!) but the clarity and presence of the observation prevents romanticizing and allows for a clear view devoid of delusions of perfection (Heh, yeah, those bookstore “trivia” games at the midnight launch parties were stupidly easy.). Mason experiences struggles and joys at every point in his growth, and by the time we’re caught up to almost the present day and he’s going off to college, there’s heated emotion, true (in his mother’s most intense scene), but mostly there’s a mix of confusion and optimism. The past is fun to look back on, but the future is exciting too, and as the final scene makes a point of, all we can really do is live in the present. The Ebert doc might have claim to the title, but Boyhood is a brilliant look at life itself.