I feel a bit self conscious about bringing up Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon because I understand that a lot of people haven't seen it, and I get why: it's a very long film from forty years ago with a reputation for being slow. But Barry Lyndon made a deep and lasting impression on me when I saw it, and it's really the best way I can think of to start talking about Boyhood.
Barry Lyndon builds to a single devastating epilogue: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." Barry Lyndon was a spy, he was a father, he was a success, he was a failure, but mostly now he's dead. There's a certain determinism in that sentiment that's lingered with me, especially if I watch a period piece. Most stories are about people trying to survive, and maybe these characters will survive till the end of the story, but no one survives forever.
Boyhood is Barry Lyndon's exact opposite. This is true in some superficial ways: Lyndon is a beautifully photographed period piece about aristocrats who have string quartets played in their opulent sitting rooms, while Boyhood is a directly framed portrait of kids who listen to Blink-182 and talk about Star Wars. Lyndon is about powerful people whose lives have massive peaks and valleys, but Boyhood is about everyday people who go through routine traumas like bad marriages and being bullied in school. But the biggest difference is that Barry Lyndon is about someone who is dead, and Boyhood is about someone who is very much alive.
I mean that literally and figuratively. Yes, the characters in Boyhood do not die in the movie, but on a deeper level they are engaged with the vitality of life in a way that the people in Kubrick's film aren't. There is no equating good and bad circumstances in Boyhood; over and over again you can see how every choice that these people make matters to them. A little decision that the mom makes shapes the lives of her children, and then her children shape the lives of the people around them, and then it spreads out from there. Because the movie has such a long time frame you begin to see how things that would seem unimportant end up coming back around, sometimes for better and other times for worse. Their lives accumulate into a whole, rather than subtracting into a nothingness.
The best part of Boyhood is that although it feels like it is adding up to something, it isn't trying to bullshit us that it knows what that something is. At the end of the movie the titular boy asks his father what the point of life is, and the father explains as kindly as he can that he has no goddamn clue. It's a funny moment, but it's also one of the most emotionally truthful moments I can remember seeing in a film. That scene reminded me of the Creedence song "Someday Never Comes", which was written by a father trying to explain to his son the things his own father could never explain to him. That song - and Creedence in general - has always reminded me of my own father, who used to listen to their greatest hits while he was working on his truck in our garage. Maybe there isn't a meaning to all of this at the end of the day, but there's something to that cycle of fathers and sons, whether it's me and my dad, or three generations of Fogertys, or the people in Boyhood, that feels important. And when it comes to your own life feeling that something is important is enough to actually make it be important, universe be damned.
In many ways Boyhood showed me the flipside of a coin that I've been thinking about for years. Yes, all of the people who are dead are equally dead, but that actually doesn't tell us anything about the people who are still alive, who are very much not equal. Some of them are attacking their lives with curiosity and hunger, and some of them are skating by, and some of them are barely hanging on. But the funny thing about life is that most people end up doing all of those things at different times. Boys grow up to have boys of their own and Someday Never Comes, but that's the way that it was meant to be.