Boyhood captures the pathos inherent in the act of remembering. To remember is to acknowledge both our mortality and our fallibility. Memory is unreliable, and fades with time as our bodies and minds do. Art is collective cultural memory, and Boyhood is an act of remembrance, its perfect preservation as a creative work (barring an apocalypse that wipes out our cinematic archives) only heightening how ephemeral our own organic experience of living is.
In its observation of passing cultural and technological indicators of eras—Harry Potter going from bedtime reading to a phenomenon that the children dress up and stand in line for, iMacs in schools and Xboxes in homes, the emergence of Facebook, smartphones and social media as an element of everyday life—the film shows an awareness of how we relate to art and culture as signposts. Without culture (and memory), we’re perpetually in the present, and never moving, never improving, never learning from mistakes and successes. So it’s only apt that Mason is an artist, in his quietude and lovely, unremarkable solitude (he’s often lonely but not abjectly so, introspective but sociable, surrounded by people who love him, by shelter and support despite the significant hurdles in his familial life).
Mason’s not unique. But then, nor is anyone, the film implies. Not Linklater, or any great artist or great human achiever. Mason’s high-school photography teacher practically spells out this thematic concern by telling him: “Any dipshit can take pictures. But art? That’s difficult. It’s what you bring to it that sets you apart.” All the people competing with Mason are as unique as he is, fraught and crushed with potential. We’re all trying to be a little unique, whether it’s by making art (like Mason and his father, who’s a dead-end musician) or just trying to be better at caring for people and succeeding at one’s career than the world expects (like Olivia, a self-made woman who fights valiantly to bring her family to a safe place financially and emotionally, despite the disadvantages piled on single mothers). Even creating a Facebook profile is essentially an act of self-preservation, an archiving of lives we know we’re breathing away as we speak—and even this is something the movie spells out when Mason waxes philosophical about closing his account.