On the Way to Self Discovery

Well, it’s been a while since my last post. What does not mean there was nothing to write about. Quite the opposite. For instance, throughout April, May and June the British Film Institute held a comprehensive retrospective of the animated wonders by Studio Ghibli. The event was designed as a tribute to Hayao Miyazaki, the Studio’s founder and creative spirit, who has just decided to bring his life-spanning career to an end with The Wind Rises. The master’s opus finale is a visually mesmerising picture telling the fictionalised story of Jiro Horikoshi, the legendary Japanese plane designer responsible for the project of Mistsubishi A6M Zero. Miyazaki’s huge passion for aviation is no secret to those acquainted with his oeuvre filled with all sorts of imaginary flying objects. Nonetheless, the film caused a tidal wave of controversies in the Japanese society, with the left wing accusing the director of glorifying “the shameless constructor of killing machines”, and the rightists pointing at the allegedly anti-Japanese (i.e. anti-imperialist) expression of the film. Unfortunately, the argument that the last Miyazaki’s work is in fact an enchanting depiction of an existence driven by a youthful dream most likely wouldn’t convince the political debaters.

Although it wasn’t my intention to dedicate this text to Miyazaki’s art, the motif of juvenile idealism is quite essential to the subject I had in mind when starting this post. It so happens that the newest picture of Richard Linklater, Boyhood, has just gone on release in UK cinemas. It is a truly unique film, a fruit of cinematic work comprising no less than 12 years. The Director of the memorable Before Sunrise (1995), starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, has gained appreciation thanks to his incredible ability of telling slow-paced, closed in the 24 hours time frame, mostly dialogue-based stories in a truly gripping manner. With this new production, however, Linklater surpassed all the expectations, charting over a decade in the life of a boy and his family. And, what is quite impressive, he achieved that goal not by means of easy tricks commonly employed in the film industry in order to fake passage of time, but with extensive footage accumulated in years of filming growing-up children and their aging cinematic parents.


Boyhood has very little to do with your average epic on coming of age. It does not replicate the classical juvenile drama with its obvious turning points, nor does it follow the main character down the glorious path to becoming a man. Instead, it registers the process of growing-up in the contemporary world, on the ever-fluid background of the cultural, historical and political reality. It is a true anthropological document of our era, recording new reference points on the line of time. Although, as Linklater himself noticed in an interview: “I thought there would be more examples in the culture. What happened is that it was really only apparent in technology. (…) It’s all in the games, cellphones, computers. There is no car that drives by and makes you think, “That’s so 2004!”. There are no hairstyles or clothes that really leap out at you. (…) And did a new music style emerge in those 12 years? The paradigm was already there. It’s an extension of an idea that we’ve already discovered all the major things about our universe – relativity, gravity, the biological aspect of evolution. Maybe there are no new areas that will completely blow our minds.” (“Richard Linklater”, Sight and Sound, August 2014, Vo. 24, Issue 8, p. 23)

Yet even in the abstract, regardless of that unique point in the history of humanity we currently find ourselves in, Boyhood is an outstanding portrayal of the most perplexing period in the human life – the time of self-discovery in the world governed by adults who are typically no less confused than children. In the film, the complex system of control, encompassing every and each aspect of the young person’s existence, is enforced on Mason (a phenomenal Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha by the authoritarian characters of two subsequent stepfathers whose rigid attitudes towards life originate in their own unresolved issues. The opposite approach to upbringing comes from the children’s biological dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a free spirited music lover who, although living apart from his family and not being exactly successful according to the conservative vision of the world, appears a much better father figure than his dictatorial, financially solvent substitutes.

We observe Mason’s growing-up struggles on the backdrop of the American society with its religious twists, love for guns and nationalist obsession. The satirical portrayal of the local way of thinking adds to the picture an element of sardonic humour, but most of all serves as an important socio-cultural context, since it is this and no other social background that spurs Mason’s resistance and pushes him to break out from the existent norms and doctrines. The need for defense of own individuality comes gradually with contemplation of the ever-present oppressive mechanisms and development of critical thinking towards the environment.

But then, again, this act of rebellion does not take any spectacular forms which one might expect from a typical movie with such a theme. Rather than a violent outbreak, it is a peaceful internal battle whose purpose is not to attract anyone’s attention, but to come to terms with oneself. The model of a free-thinking dad appears crucial to the young boy’s self-definition. It is the live-away-father who introduces Mason to the world of alternative music, shows him how to be a man without turning into a macho and demonstrates that it is possible to be a worthy human being without necessarily following the most popular path. Having an appreciative dad he can talk to about virtually anything assures Mason in his first serious choices and allows him to establish his own system of values.

As it is the case with every significant piece of fiction, be it film, literature or drama, Boyhood‘s deeply universal expression stems from a story of an individual: an independent youth who objects to the standard, narrow-minded vision of the world cultivated by the majority and insists on being his own guy. There might be millions of other teenagers struggling for the same kind of freedom at the same point in time, but what we witness on screen is Mason’s personal battle which he must carry out by himself. That said, placing Mason’s story in the centre of attention doesn’t make Linklater’s film a one character drama. Beside him and his male circle, there is a whole array of female figures, including the boy’s ambitious mum Olivia (Patricia Arquette) who tries to balance self-fulfillment with challenges of single parenthood, and his older sibling Samantha (the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater) who quietly passes through the same process of maturation, except that it takes place in a slightly different, gender-specific cultural context. (By the way, it is astounding how bad is Mason’s sister musical taste despite positive influences coming from Mason Senior. Aren’t those preferences in any way symptomatic of young girls’ particular susceptibility to the cultural vacuum we currently live in?) Growing up in this predominantly female environment is a hugely significant part of Mason’s life experience, as it gives him a unique insight into the world of women and teaches him how to efficiently communicate with the opposite sex.

It is precisely this multiple focus (along the protagonist’s juvenile dilemmas we get an opportunity to follow a variety of adolescent and mature characters negotiating their way through the world) that determines the picture’s epic quality. Because as much as about growing up, being a child, a boy, a girl, an adult or a parent, Boyhood is about life as a process in which we discover who we really are and what we stand for. As Linklater himself said in an interview, “the film is not trying to capture the big moments. It is really trying to capture the small, little parts of life.” [The Guardian] These tiny segments of time are preserved by the human mind as impressions and then live inconspicuous in our memory until one day they come to the surface by means of association, causing an acute feeling of nostalgia. As far as I am aware, no contemporary motion picture has so far illustrated the passage of time and our perception of it in a more comprehensive and captivating way than Boyhood. With charm and humor, fantastic soundtrack (including such indie classics as Do you realize? by The Flaming Lips), beautiful cinematography (Lee Daniel/Shane Kelly) and outstanding cast, Linklater’s new drama is a cinematographic experience not to be missed.



© Anna Bajor-Ciciliati, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anna Bajor-Ciciliati with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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