Richard Linklater's new movie Boyhood is a formal accomplishment and a narrative hazard
In that the formal premise exceeds the story, Richard Linklater’s new movie Boyhood is more like a piece of conceptual art than a feature film. The director (and often writer) of experimental flights of fancy (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Bernie) as well as classic crowd-pleasers (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock), Linklater has been working on Boyhood since 2002. Normally, filmmakers can’t take a decade to shoot a movie -- actors age, places change, and time has its own production schedule. But instead of fighting it, Linklater shot a movie on time’s schedule itself, filming the same actors from the beginning to when they finished shooting last year. This means Boyhood elapses concurrently with lead actor Ellar Coltrane’s actual adolescence. We watch his character Mason Jr. through his growth spurts and acne, as his face acquires definition and studs appear in his ears. We watch him grow from a boy into something like a young man, not in real time, but like the holiday glimpses we get of out-of-town cousins as they age. Boyhood is unique in its pacing; it truly feels unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen.
Because it’s such a conceptual effort, it seems almost unfair to judge Boyhood as a narrative feature. Doing a decade-plus movie seems especially a stretch for Linklater, whose best films take place over the course of a single day. In Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, his first hit Slacker, and probably a few others I haven’t seen, Linklater stretches out a moment in time and space all the way, pulling each nook and cranny flat for a second so we can really look.
Mason Jr. is the son of Mason (Linklater go-to Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and the younger brother of Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). When we meet the surnameless family, Olivia and the kids are moving to Houston so she can go back to school for (wink wink) developmental psychology. Mason Sr. has been gone for over a year, writing music in Alaska like a wayward absentee father ought. We miss the initial conflict that splits Mason and Olivia, but when he reenters his children’s lives, Mason is a kind, empathetic, and -- if a bit flighty -- overall nurturing presence. A vastly disproportionate amount of the film occurs during the kids’ fortnightly weekend visits with their father.
Notably absent from Boyhood is any use of the most standard formal trope for denoting the passage of time: montage. There are no cheesy shape-shifting scenes in which the director has to show us that one character has become another. Mason Jr.’s pouty lips stay the same as his body stretches around them from one cut to the next. Boyhood is a coming-of-age film told in a way no one else has managed before, and it’s unlikely anyone will manage again any time soon. But the project falls into the novelist’s trap of imagining life as a series of extra-consequential moments and loses sight of the space between.
Mason Jr. isn’t the protagonist so much as the movie's longitudinal subject. It’s so impressive to watch him age that I was tempted to ignore how little we end up knowing about him. Mason doesn’t treat anyone badly over the course of the film, but he doesn’t treat anyone well either. His sister Samantha is varyingly (and convincingly) sensitive and obnoxious, but Mason is uniformly taciturn, in the way you might expect a kid to be when asked to perform for a family friend. We don’t have the aid of internal monologue, so the viewer never gets the sense that Mason is shaped by the things that happen to him.
Although the film hints at the possibility, Olivia and Mason Sr. don't reconcile. Instead, Olivia marries (then divorces) two stepdads, who we get to know in before-and-after scenes of abusive alcoholism. That Linklater can make the cliche even a bit jarring is a credit to his skill, but there’s no sign that this violence influences Mason Jr.’s development. He experiences consequences in that he has to switch schools a lot, but his character hews to some essence that remains unaffected by the scenes around him. Out of all the chaos and violent foreshadowing, Mason Jr. emerges a healthy, inquisitive, stable young man. If there’s any sort of message to Boyhood, it’s a parenting one: Love your child, try your best, and they’ll turn out fine.
It’s hard to imagine Linklater taking this unique narrative concept and using it to make a particular political “statement” about American masculinity, especially because the director has always been more interested in existential questions than social relations. There’s no vicious cycle here, and the sins of the father(s) don’t take root in the son. Why not? We watch Mason very close from the outside. He seems like a good kid, but that’s what neighbors say about school shooters and rapists too. The viewer never sees him prove -- either to us or himself -- what kind of man he is really becoming.
At one point in Boyhood, Mason Jr. waits in the back of his mom’s class for her to finish a lecture on attachment theory. In developmental psychology, the theory focuses on a child’s relationship to their primary caregiver, breaking it down into four categories of attachment. The goal is “secure attachment,” in which the child feels loved and protected enough at home to explore the world with confidence. (I’ve known the concept for a long time because, like Olivia, my mother studied developmental psychology, and she used it to explain her parenting decisions throughout my childhood. “I want you to feel loved so that you'll leave,” she would say.) As a parenting strategy, I have no complaints, but as a cinematic lens, attachment theory leaves a lot to be desired. Boyhood is a parent’s-eye view of growing up, and as such it minimizes the importance of every other influence in a child’s life.
The divorced parents rarely share a shot, but rather than reflect on the unfair and gendered division of parenting labor, Boyhood defaults to the father’s point of view. I can understand not wanting to underuse Hawke, but after a while the narrative composition starts to look like a dad’s testimony at a custody hearing. Remember that time we went bowling, or to the Astros game? What about when we went camping, just the two of us? Arquette’s Olivia, on the other hand, spends a lot of screentime crying. But when she quickly marries her leering older professor -- who turns out to be a mean, violent drunk -- Linklater doesn’t let us in on her choice. It goes unexplored why a single woman in school with two kids to care for would move in with a man who has lots of extra bedrooms. Near the end of the film, when Mason Sr. has remarried, become a suit-wearing actuary, and started a new family, he explains to his son that he just hadn’t been ready before, and if Olivia had waited and given him a chance, maybe things would have been different. Instead of “You left us.” or “Do you have any idea what she went through to put a roof over our heads?,” Mason Jr. says something to the effect of “Yeah, that would have saved me from those drunk assholes.”
This is the cultural heuristic my mother used to call “Cherchez la mom.” When we need to find something to blame for a tragedy, mothering becomes the de facto central influence in a child or adult’s life. This process almost never goes as far as weighing the social circumstances that constrain a mother’s choices. Toward the film’s conclusion, Mason asks his mom why she bought their house in the first place if she was going to have to sell it when he went to college, she answers exasperated but only half-sarcastic, “Because I enjoy making poor decisions!” But abandoned with no support from her children’s father, what would good decisions have looked like?
Before he murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, Elliot Rodger wrote a manifesto in which he blamed, among many other people, his single mother for setting him up to fail. "If only my damnable mother had married into wealth instead of being selfish," he wrote. "I will always resent my mother for refusing to do this. If not for her sake, she should have done it for mine." CNN reported that his mother paid Rodger’s rent and gave him the BMW he used in his rampage, despite her ex-husband having cut off child-support payments. What separates Mason Jr. from someone like Elliot?
The answer the film gives is parental love. Between his father’s sage advice and his mother’s hard work and sacrifice, Mason is headed off to college in his truck, an implied success. But what this conclusion suggests is that Elliot Rodger was right about his mom, that her inadequate nurturing cost seven people their lives. If a mother’s love is what saves Mason
Socialization is not simply a function of maternal attachment, and Mason encounters a culture of toxic masculinity inside and outside the home. No one tells Mason not to be a rapist, but over his first beer an older boy tells him “It’s not what about what she wants, it’s about what you want.” No one tells Mason not to hit women, but he sees his mom beaten, abused, and humiliated by his stepfather. No one talks to Mason about sexuality, but another drunk stepfather mocks him for his painted nails. He’s always the new kid at school, and he gets shoved and bullied in the bathroom. For his 15th birthday, Mason’s paternal grandfather gives him a shotgun and shows him how to use it. Does this sound like the beginning to a different story?
Not all American boys become rapists or abusers, murderers or bigots, but boyhood contains pieces of instruction that, when composed as part of a narrative like in the film, look a lot like foreshadowing. A sentimental focus on the importance of good parenting lets the rest of society off the hook. It encourages us to cherchez la mom when things go wrong instead of looking at larger social factors. It takes a village to raise an abusive young man, and our village raises a lot of them. This doesn’t mean we’re stuck in a fatalistic cycle of repetition, but it does mean boyhood is an uphill battle against foreshadows of violence and cruelty. And in Boyhood, Linklater declares victory too early.
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