Boyhood: On Watching A Life Unfold

This is article #28 to be published on the Get The Guy blog from my brother Stephen. Steve helped co-write the Get The Guy book and is a wealth of knowledge on dating and relationships.

This week’s article is a reflective piece about growing up. Avoiding hackneyed self-help cliches, Steve lays out 8 honest truths that we all need reminding of from time to time.

Enter Stephen

I’m feeling in a weird mood this week, having just watched Richard Linklater’s incredible new film Boyhood.

If you haven’t heard already, the premise of this movie is pretty amazing, and an astonishing exercise in ambition.

Linklater shot the movie over a period of twelve years in tiny increments, always using the same cast, which means, scene-by-scene, we get to see the young protagonist Mason grow from a child to a teenager, and finally a man, all in the space of a little over two-and-a-half hours.

Check out the trailer here:

The result is a movie that is small in focus and yet seems to be about everything big and important. It’s an American epic in the suburbs, a meditation on the smallness of an individual life, which gently brushes against all the grandest of themes: Ageing, Divorce, Kids, The Struggle For Happiness And Fulfillment, Loss, and Love. The film enables you as an audience member to sit back and drift through the life of one child going through the milestones of adolescence – being a kid and understanding the world, struggles with parents, moving home, meeting and losing girls, going to college, and finally trying to figure out who and what you want to be.

The power of this film, like many great movies, comes from what you bring to it. It reflects your own life back at you. As you watch Mason evolve and shift, as his memories pile on other memories, you remember how you too have gradually drifted moment by moment towards the person you’ve become today. It forces you to experience growing up all over again, and as you do, you realise how you don’t wake up and change one day – you inch towards new perspectives, new views and new versions of yourself.

You also realise that life isn’t one march toward an end result. It’s not a constant homing missile shot towards one goal, or one ultimate purpose with a definitive end. People’s stories just begin and end all the time. You can’t predict anything. People don’t always turn out the way you think they will. Others turn out exactly how you think they will. Some people repeat patterns and others break them. People just move through the world along their own path and occasionally intersect with yours.

Life is a bunch of moments strung together, and whether painful or joyful, every slice you take and examine has its own individual potency; its own richness and beauty.

Here’s a list of things the film made me think about.

Take them as ‘thoughts from watching a life unfold’ (no spoilers at all, incidentally):

1. Everywhere there are choices – Everything takes you in a different direction. There is such a dizzying array of possibilities in front of you all the time, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. All our choices set us on new paths – and the choices are everywhere.

2. You are a unique version of you in this moment, savour it – Life is often spent desperately in hope of transforming into a ‘perfect’ version of ourselves. But every version of you has some beauty to it. There is no finished product version of you. Every single day we hold in our minds a completely unique set of experiences, making us different from any self before that day or after it. Savour every ‘you’ – it’s too easy to waste it all wishing you were someone else.

3. Even people you don’t admire can be the greatest teachers – You don’t have to pick role models – you can learn from anyone around you, if you can stop being so judgmental all the time.

4. People change each other in tiny ways – This is one of those things everyone says: “you never know whose lives you’ve touched”, and it’s one of the few aphorisms that isn’t trite or banal. You can, and do, affect and change people you don’t even remember or will never know in profound ways.

5. Any part of life can be compelling and beautiful if you look at it through the right lense – We tend to see ourselves in stages – teenager, twenties, thirties, married, parent, old…etc. But these stages can be limiting. We get mired in them and tend to think they have to mean the same thing to everyone. Some of us even see these as just stages to be gotten through, as though there is some special destination waiting if we just go through enough of the right desired steps. But there isn’t. There’s richness everywhere if we’re willing to see it. No part is wasted, and no part is a ‘test’ for the next one. Let go of the ‘stages’ idea and make your own milestones.

6. Memories come from shared experiences with people – Experience is the opposite of numbness. Experience is being a part of the game. It’s deciding to take part and swim in the current, instead of sitting on the side of the pool wondering whether you should get in. Things happen to you when you’re in the race. And you want things to happen to you. Lots of things.

7. Everyone has their own pain – People face their own battles every single day. People who broke your heart, or let you down, or rejected you, face a daily battle of their own as great and as difficult as your own. Just knowing that puts you in a position of better understanding than anyone else.

8. Don’t chase endings, they rarely happen – Life doesn’t stop because you achieved a goal, or met the love of your life, or got a dream job. Every ending is a ‘to be continued…’ and every story keeps unfolding. There is never a point, until death, as far as we know, when things stop happening to you. Endings are maybe, in the end, only for the movies.

Oh, one more thing.

As you may know, Matt and I are obsessed with movie soundtracks. And this one has a host of evocative pop and indie songs spanning the last decade – it’s like the jukebox to a noughties childhood.

Here’s a track from the movie (and the trailer above) to play whenever you find yourself riding a bike on a mild summer evening, or sitting out on the porch on a lazy warm afternoon this July, wondering where you came from and how you got to this moment right now. Thank me later:

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *

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44 Replies to “Boyhood: On Watching A Life Unfold”

  • I just watched this film last weekend. I didn’t notice the three hours at all. It’s really enjoyable and I think it deserves the Oscar win for the sheer dedication of the project alone! It was so seamless to watch and fun to watch the kids change over the years. You’re article gave me much to ponder that I wasn’t necessarily thinking of when I watched it. I like that you pulled so much from it. I loved points 2, 4, 5 and 8 in particular. Perhaps a film should be made of your beautiful mind one day! ;)


    Speaking of movie soundtracks – a fave of mind is still The Lost Boys. What do you think?

  • I am at the best version of me,i love that ;)
    Be involved more in the game, shared memories,life with no ending,swim in the current…these are really good good as in soooo good stuff ( life lessons). Enjoying the life i have now is the best gift i ever gave to myself that others too benefit more from it.hmmm..such a finger-licking good kind of let them crucify me.
    Why thank you later?when i can be giving you invisible kisses…but not as deep as i did imagine with your brother.hahaha

    i am considering watching that film :)see you soon
    Sister’s kiss,
    Ordinary girl ;)

  • How has no one commented on this since awards season? (Oh yeah, I guess this is not technically a film blog, eh? And I realize that probably no one will ever read this comment. No matter!)

    I LOVED this movie. I remember before I saw it, I heard a discussion on the Guardian Film Show; when he was asked whether Boyhood was too long, Peter Bradshaw said something along the lines of “I wish it were still going on now.” Definitely, when I came out of the cinema, I felt like I’d had some kind of Narnia experience, where much more of a life had actually passed than was possible in one afternoon.

    I found it difficult to say goodbye to each successive era in the movie, as I got attached to each as it came, and I knew there would be no going back. Like a little rehearsal for real life passing—tough but true! And it was moving to see how the characters in the movie suffered disappointments and broken hearts, but, as you say, there were no endings; instead, we saw them move on to a new chance, another love, a wide open vista.

    There’s so much more I could say about what the movie provoked for me, but I’ll hold back and just say that I really like the lessons you drew from it, and the way you broke them down (without giving anything away; nicely done!) into clear points, and ones very applicable to developing perspective on relationships and life in general. I particularly like the idea to “savour every ‘you’” (as I see many others here did as well). I think it’s easy to be so focused on becoming something we want to be that we don’t appreciate the unique selves we are as we pass through them.

    I’ll suggest one more point—not from the narrative but from the story behind the movie (as I’ve heard it). Linklater had no idea when he started the project whether it had any chance of being completed. (As you said, an exercise in ambition.) Everyone involved had to go into it with a giant leap of faith, and without binding commitment, since no legal contract would last that many years. Linklater didn’t know whether the kid would turn out to be any good in the lead role as he grew up, or whether someone might die, or how the world would change; and his daughter decided partway through that she wasn’t into it, so he had to scale down her character. So the fact that the end result was even finished, let alone successful, was due to a mixture of persistence, flexibility, creativity, passion, trust, and luck. Luck was no doubt important, but would not have won out on its own; all the other stuff was necessary to make the possible real.

  • I love your insights drawn from the movie. I also firmly believe there are many choices in our hands and often people do not quite believe they can make changes and make their lives better in so many different ways. I believe that there are no right choice of path in life, just experiences, and with each new experience, we learn and we grow, and meet different people in our life.
    I have not watch the movie and will do so now. It’s amazing someone has got some vision to make a movie over 12 years with the same group of actors and watching how people grow and change.

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