Understanding story through Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Josh Pease

Richard Linklater’sBoyhood is unlike any movie I’ve seen, and one of the most rewarding viewing experiences of the year.

Linklater spent 12 years creating this film, which charts the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 to 18. Because Linklater filmed scenes with Coltrane intermittently over those 12 years, we watch Mason come of age around Houston and the hill country of Texas with no aging effects or lookalike actors. Time passes quickly, yet without mile markers. One day we gasp as Mason – still played by Coltrane - appears on screen a foot taller. He’s no longer the little boy we’ve just spent an hour with.

Trying to describe the plot of Boyhood is like describing the plot of my childhood. I can tie the major beats and moments into a neat bow, but it would be artificial and fail to capture what makes the story meaningful. All of us create narratives out of our lives to help us and others understand them, but what we actually remember is a series of unconnected moments seared in our souls by the emotional charge or paradigm shifts that accompanied them.

This is what Boyhood captures. Each scene is made significant not by its plot advancement, but for why it’s significant to Mason’s heart, mind and soul. When Mason is told by a college student that his mom is an excellent professor, it’s significant because for the first time he sees his mom as a human being, with a life and dreams of her own. It makes sense that this moment is something he’d remember.

While living our stories, it can be difficult to recognize when the “important” beats arrive.

It’s popular to think of our lives, especially as Christians, in the context of a story. In many ways it is helpful to understand that the story of our life exists within the Story of the Bible. But there’s a danger in this as well: we begin to look for the “important” story beats, where success is measured by immediate impact. But what Boyhood understands is that some of the most significant moments in life don’t seem like significant moments at all. My favorite moment in the film is when Mason’s mom encourages a stranger with an off-handed comment; later we learn how it positively altered the course of the man’s life.

While living our stories, it can be difficult to recognize when the “important” beats arrive. Often it’s not until decades later that we truly see what changed the course of our or others' lives. As I write this I am a few days away from becoming a dad. Walking away from this movie I was overwhelmed by this upcoming responsibility - of having no idea where and when these life-defining moments will shape my son’s life. I remember my childhood, and how I held on to thoughts and ideas and decisions and no one around me ever knew. These moments shaped my life – how do I help my son understand his story?  

The hope I have – one that Boyhood doesn’t appear to share – is that despite the seeming randomness of things, there truly is a master storyteller who is bringing the story together, injecting it with meaning and weaving even fourth-act tragedy into a redemptive conclusion. Scripture’s encouragement that “all things work together for good” can be heard as a cliché, but when properly understood it is still beautiful.

Our lives are a series of moments. We have no idea which ones will be significant. Pain and tragedy will occur. But those who walk the path of Jesus have the hope of a happy ending. We may all have a role to play, but we’re not the writers. And today I find this thought freeing.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure