or: How I Related to Boyhood and All its Ups and Downs
This essay includes spoilers for the film.
I walked into Richard Linklater’s Boyhood worried about what I’d find; maybe a film neatly cut up into each period of a young man’s life, maybe a mess of montages, who knew. The overwhelming praise made me wary (as it always does). But, luckily enough, I understood and shared the love for this movie. Linklater has done a damn fine job depicting the growth of a young man over twelve years of his life.
We start off at five years old, with Coldplay’s “Yellow” playing over shots of the sky and then a close-up on Mason (Ellar Coltrane). I can’t imagine how many times I laid in the grass and just stared up at the sky, trying to find heaven knows what in the sky. And a lot of the youthful years of Boyhood are focused on depicting a lot of the little things from childhood that one still remembers even when they’ve entered adulthood. All the ridiculous fights with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), who was a showstealer all through her younger years (in both character and performance), just as every older sibling tries to take the limelight and place it on themselves. There’s nothing I know better than a sister who cries after she throws a pillow and then has it thrown back at her, and clearly Mason and the filmmaker do too.
But the memories don’t stop there. I too remember having my mother read books to me in bed; maybe notHarry Potter — because I read that all on my very own in third grade and also dressed up as Potter and friends for midnight book releases just like Mason — but a multitude of others. I remember watchingDragon Ball Z on a bean bag while playing my Game Boy Advance SP, and even looking at the underwear sections of store catalogs (albeit at the men and their bulges instead of the women with their breasts half-out). Hell, I even remember having the pillow up between my sister and I in the car while our family tried to get us to play the “game of silence” on road trips. Even though my father was around while the on-screen one wasn’t, so much of the younger years on screen are reflective of my own. It’s more than likely because I’m of a similar generation (Coltrane and I are three and a half years apart), but you don’t get films that nail that experience of childhood all that well nowadays.
That being said, I have my issues with the hyper-masculinity that surrounds the film, as it pervades through many a coming-of-age work. But this is more so something that I struggle to connect with, as I always have (and, as we know, not being able to relate to something is not an instant excuse to call something bad). Linklater understands the fact that masculinity is forced upon a young man, and delivers that in mostly smart ways, with only the occasional misstep. The weakest of these scenes is one when Mason has gone to hang with the brother of a friend and a couple of other guys; where they all rally around sort-of drinking beers and talking about getting pussy. It’s obnoxious teen culture, something that gets explored much better in other scenes, but this is just one of a couple of trite bits depicting that. Though it’s not nearly as bad as one of two “bullies” shoving into Mason in the bathroom while he plays with his hair.
Contrary to those, there are scenes that depict forced masculinity that are absolutely brilliant. The most memorable one, and arguably one of my favorite shots in the film, is one of Mason sitting in a barbershop chair, having his hair chopped off by a stranger. Linklater delivers a close-up like no other in his film, and Coltrane manages to express so much with that one look; a sense of loss for something that was a part of him and a building anger towards the man who forced this look on him. Maybe it’s solely because an alcoholic father figure wanting you to cut your long-flowing hair is something I relate to, but all these small scenes reveal a lot about Mason’s longing to go against the grain; something that eventually leads him to be the kind of shitty teen obsessed with being contrarians that many of us become.
If I’m being honest, I spent a lot of the scenes where he showed a disdain for masculinity wondering and admittedly hoping that Mason would turn out to be queer, or at least take a moment to question his sexuality. While these things aren’t mutually exclusive, I spent a lot of my teen years questioning both the gender roles I’d be forced into, as well as my sexuality. It’s not something I expect from a straight male filmmaker, but Mason’s constant clash with forced masculinity didn’t seem like what his sister said was him trying to be “cool.” It often felt like a search for figuring out exactly who he wanted to become, and Boyhood should have featured more of that sense of conflicted self. But it’s a straight man’s film, and this is more me projecting my wishes onto Boyhood, and not actively criticizing it for not taking a different route.
These segments are still just short portions of his life, as the further back we try to remember of our lives, the harder it is, and the more fractured our memories become. One scene complements the way that Boyhood allows time to pass seamlessly very well: Samantha saying something to her father about only remembering him and her mother fighting. Sometimes we remember loud moments more than quiet ones, which is why there are so many littered through Mason’s life. His relationship with his parents are something that is often looked into, and are essential to both Mason’s growth as well as the narrative being presented.
Scenes with his biological father (Ethan Hawke), who popped up on occasion, were what I found the weakest (especially those that involved eye-roll-worthy political stuff), while those with his mother (Patricia Arquette) came off as constant high points. But maybe that’s part of the point that Linklater was trying to get across; the conversations between father and children are awkward because they’re meant to be uncomfortable. They’re unappealing because no one wants to sit in a car with someone they barely see who has another life away from them. We bond more with the people who have constantly cared for us and been there in our lives, and while Mason chose to rebel at times, there was always a love there for his mother. It shows in his childhood, when he tries his hardest to ensure that the alcoholic abusive step-father has no chance at finding and/or hurting his mother. In turn, his mother has to save them from the same man, and her primary concern is always her children.
As much as praise has been heaped on Coltrane, it’s really Arquette who shone the brightest for me. The glimpses we receive of her through Mason’s life experiences are absolutely stellar, as she and Linklater take the typical struggling single mother role and turns it into something that was genuinely compelling. Scenes where she breaks down entirely are her strongest, confronting the harsh situations she’s placed in and hitting a point of almost mid-life crisis, realizing that there might not be all that much left in life now that her children are both gone. To say that I would have loved to see a Motherhood film isn’t at all a stretch, with the sole exception being a scene that did a lot more harm than good to the film.
The depiction of a teacher being a positive influence on a student has been done before, and it would have been simple to present with the scenes where Mason attends his mother’s class. However, in a very poor move, Richard Linklater takes one of the sole characters of color — a young Latino who barely speaks English — and has Mason’s mother outright tell him that he should go to school. Cut to years later, where he’s now the manager of a restaurant and speaks perfect English. “Lo and behold, the white savior has helped me by speaking to me once and encouraging me! Free food for all!” It’s an uncomfortable scene that doesn’t even really fit into the narrative, as it comes before her confrontation with there not being more to life than raising her kids.
But this is Mason’s film and it remains that way through and through, even though we occasionally are treated to scenes with his family. They’re supporting members in the grand scheme of things, and it’s never more obvious than in his teen years, which are stretched out over a long portion of the film. While Mason’s knack for photography sort of pops out of nowhere and shows him trying hard to be an artist looking for meaning where there isn’t any at all at the age of fifteen, Linklater and cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly know exactly what they’re doing from the get-go. A lot of their decisions on how to shoot something will undoubtedly make those familiar with his work recall certain scenes. One very simple shot of Mason and a girl strolling down an alley while talking about all sorts of teen things (personality changes, a hate for Twilight, friendship, other nonsense) has the power to instantly recall those strolls that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy thrice took in their own time.
At the end of the day though, it’s just another scene in a grand story called life. And that’s exactly what Boyhood is: a collection of moments. Some will scoff at its lack of any traditional narrative, but Linklater has managed to create a film that doesn’t try hard to capture every single thing that encapsulates this idea of boyhood, but rather finds interest in all the slices of life we can remember as we age. No matter how monotonous it all seems in the moment or how meaningful we believe it could be, it’s just a moment in that big ol’ thing we call our lives. That’s why, in its final scene, when Mason sits staring off into the distance after taking some mushrooms and being worried about where his life is going to go, he and the girl next to him just talk about how moments can seize us. Boyhood may be a nearly three hour film that spans twelve years, something rather grand and ambitious in scale, but at its heart, it’s all about the simple moments that seized one boy, and how they made him the person he ended up being.