How we remember things – A few thoughts on Boyhood


I watched the much-hyped Boyhood a few weeks ago. It’s a brilliant, brilliant experiment.

Boyhood is made by Richard Linklater of Before Sunrise fame. The fun bit is, it’s shot over a period of twelve years, from 2002 to 2014. The main reason Mr. Linklater says he did this was because he wanted to shoot a movie about childhood, but realized nothing good could be done over a span of a year or so… it was always incidents over a period of time, and obviously, if you have a child actor, you can’t cast multiple people to play him at different ages and also keep the coentinuity in the mind of the viewer.

So he took this kid, Ellar Coltrane, aged six then, and shot about ten-fifteen minutes every year for twelve years. Ellar plays the main character, Mason. There are other characters, most notably Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Lorelai Linklater, his mother, Ethan Hawke playing his biological father. There are men his mother marries and divorces over the years, a ‘parade of drunks’ as he calls them toward the end, friends, a girlfriend, a teacher or two, and his grandmother. It’s wonderful watching everyone grow older together.

Given no one else might be releasing stuff with this level of time-commitment in the near future, this is pretty much all we have for a while to learn what happens when you shoot stuff over a long period of time. The stuff we can draw from this is notable, mainly because the sort of script and scenes and stuff are different from what you’ve seen otherwise.

The movie starts in first grade and ends when Mason goes off to UT Austin to study photography. Mr. Linklater’s approach throughout was to think of it all as a series of memories, not as a story to tell. The approach itself is not the brilliant bit. It’s easy to go wrong with this, have something that’s all totally disconnected and completely pointless, or have an agenda no matter how much you try not to. Mr. Linklater succeeds in not falling into either trap.

Some of the important events in his life are shown, like the time his biological father reenters his life, when he first notices his mother’s interest in her subsequent husbands, his fifteenth birthday, winning a medal, going off to college.

But you also see a lot of stuff you don’t know the point of – like when his mother’s student checks out his room, or when his girlfriend and wake up in his sister’s roommate’s bed and see that the roommate’s back earlier than expected, going camping with his father, his job washing dishes at a restaurant…

And a lot of the big things are missed. You never see any of his mother’s weddings. Not his first kiss, not his first time having sex. You do see references he comes across to sex and porn through his childhood, but you never see any of that having a real point…. like you do see his father educating his sister and him about condoms, but you don’t see him experimenting subsequently. Not even when his girlfriend cheats on him… you only get to see the conversation they have later, and even that is pretty drama-free.

Nothing really leads into something else, you don’t revisit things that much, the threads don’t necessarily connect. And that’s kind of how you remember some things in life. Some things, not everything. I have a few big loud memories, but also a lot of random moments where I remember irrelevant things everyone else has forgotten.

Which is why that conversation he has after school with a girl inviting him to a party stuck with me. The girl is talkative, and really deep in the way only fourteen-year-olds can be (she doesn’t like Twilight), and really interested in him, while he is standoffish and not saying much, though he is quite obviously enjoying the conversation and likes her… it sounded way too familiar, way too close to home.

You also get to see the ugly manifestations of alcoholism and abuse in ways you haven’t seen before. You see his stepfather getting more and more controlling. You see him lose it, but not in the dramatic way you’ve seen a million times before. The kids are scared, but not scared that they are going to die. You feel the confusion, the faux-normalcy, until his mother takes the children and goes away. You see his other stepfather seeming like an idealistic veteran and father figure, before he begins drinking more and more, growing in despair and anger. I haven’t quite seen anything like that.

The other thing that happens when you shoot over a period of time is the throwbacks to a past era are more subtle. It is the polar opposite of the opening sequence of The To Do List, which is insanely ’90s. You see an old Apple computer in the library, the videogames the children play, and you see him making a video call on his IPhone… some people found that in-your-face, but I found that a little more subtle than other references.

Boyhood makes me think of a larger point. The way we remember things doesn’t have to be coherent, neat sequences of events. But, at least in my head, the way I remember things is like a story ready to be narrated to someone else. So there’s this beginning and middle and end and I make them tie together. It might be because I blog and write a diary, it might be because that’s the only sort of narrative I come across. It makes me wonder how much of how we think is shaped by how we see others narrate stories. It is oddly freeing, after watching this movie, to know that patterns of my thoughts don’t have to have a point or a narrative.

That said, it takes a lot of talent to do this sort of an experiment and have the result be even half-coherent. It takes a lot of vision to even decide to do something like this. It takes an infinite amount of patience, self-awareness and commitment to decide to have it look like a series of memories and not a complete story by any means. As an improviser, I find it very interesting to see how just natural conversation and reacting to each other can be so powerful.

I wonder what my Girlhood would look like. Off the top of my head, there would be the time I argued with my mother to wear this white dress at age twelve and she wouldn’t let me. The FRIENDS marathon that was on TV the day I was joining NITK. Suffering from typhoid in a hospital, and the nurses smiling at my colouring books. Going off the rails in third standard when the teachers put me in the back row with the rest of the troublemakers. A week of headache after the first time I dove into the pool from the springboards. Missing catches in throwball because I couldn’t stop catching with my fingertips instead of my palm. Visiting five different relatives in one day and my mother having the exact same bitch session with each of them. A whole crowd of distant nieces of my uncle’s new bride visiting us, and their playing havoc with the toys I carefully arranged in the living room and never played with because I considered myself too grown up to do so. Shivering by a campfire and falling asleep at age 10, and waking up wrapped in the jacket of this twelve year old boy who seemed like such a grown man back then that I looked up to him for weeks after that. Running into the same boy eight years later, and he was such a snob that though I recognized him, I decided I wouldn’t bring it up. Guess the last scene would be waiting desperately for the crowd gathered in my room at 2am on my first week at NITK to leave, and after they left, tucking myself in my serene blue blanket and reading English, August. 

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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One Response to How we remember things – A few thoughts on Boyhood

  1. Pingback: An update on Boyhood OR When Ethan Hawke locked eyes with me from across a room | The NITK Numbskulls Page

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