Boyhood, Richard Linklater's latest brainchild, is an epic, beautiful, and poignant film. It was shot over 12 years using the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, from age 6 to 18 and while the film has been getting a lot of attention for its grand time frame, its perhaps most notable for its timeliness.
Richard Linklater is no stranger to films that straddle fiction and reality. His 2011 film, Bernie, is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director in Carthage, a small Texas town, who commits a murder. The film features testimonials from actual people from Carthage who knew the real Bernie. Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy gives an improvised feeling since the films are all centered on long and wieldy conversations between two lovers as they walk around at different points in their lives. So Boyhood, which became tethered to how the real Ellar Coltrane developed, in many ways seems like the ultimate experiment in balance between reality and fiction.
Except that there already is a longitudinal project that is constantly updating and straddling that line: the Internet. Boyhood began its production 12 years ago - only two years before Facebook was founded. At the time when Linklater came up with this project home videos and photo albums were obviously a popular way of cataloging someone's growth - but those methods are incomparable to the behemoth of data and information that makes up our online social media networks today. If Linklater had thought up the idea for Boyhood today it wouldn't work because it kind of already exists.
It's possible that years from today historians will look back at this film and use the main character, Mason, as the prototypical example of one of the last people to be born into a world not dominated by social media. In interviews Linklater has said that it was important for the film to be from the point of view of the boy and so the scenes that he chose to include were not necessarily landmarks but rather memories that a child would retain. In the film we see the boy going with his sister to buy the newest Harry Potter book the night it comes out, going to a baseball game, and playing on a Wii. These small details are the essence of much of social media today. The number of cupcakes on instagram far outweighs the number of pictures related to traumatic family events or other dramatic occurrences that may be featured in a film.
That is not to say that Boyhood is frivolous or irrelevant but rather that it marks an end. I have no pictures from the days when my parents took me to buy the Harry Potter books at midnight but today my mother snaps an iPhone photo at just about any event my younger brother attends. I can only speculate but it seems likely that more and more memories from childhood will be attached to a corresponding online photo or live tweet and we will all be constructing our own personalized versions of the movie Boyhood.
There's a scene in the film where Mason and his girlfriend Sheena are driving and he complains to her about social media. He says something to the effect of, "People are constantly checking their phones even though they are not that interested in what their friends have to say. Yet they are not fully present in the in-person interactions they're having so they aren't having a whole experience." This seems ironic since the film in many ways mirrors social media: it's a history or biography that is shaped both by reality (the manner in which Ellar grows or, in the case of social media, life in general) and curation (on social media people make many decisions that impact the manner in which they are projected and the film was scripted and conceived by Linklater).
Boyhood is not special because of its universality but rather its specificity. This is not a film about what it means to be a boy, it is a film about what it means to be a boy today in this very peculiar time that happens to coincide with a drastic shift in the manner in which we remember and tell our own stories.