Boyhood: You Either Get it Or You Don’t

Boyhood Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood (IFC Pictures)

Both a “masterpiece” and a “self-indulgent bore,” Richard Linklater’s passion project captured the painful fleetingness of life.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, in honor of his latest film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? we turn our eye to Austin’s favored son, Richard Linklater. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Pop culture backlash is a funny thing. It’s not enough to point out that a critically acclaimed movie or TV show is actually very bad, it has to be done smugly, with the implication that anyone who genuinely likes it has been duped somehow, convinced that they like it when they really don’t. It’s up to these brave internet warriors to set them straight.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a film more than a decade in the making, was released in 2014 to positive reviews and, considering its more than two and a half hour long runtime, a surprisingly robust box office. As is often the case, it wasn’t until it had been nominated for Best Picture that the knives came out for this benign slice of life film about twelve years in the life of a Texas boy and his working class family. It seems odd to regard a movie like Boyhood, which goes out of its way to be low-key and uncontroversial, with such vitriol, but film buffs, we tend to take the existence of movies we dislike personally. 

Besides the fact that it was “self-indulgent” (the second most meaningless burn someone can inflict on a filmmaker after “pretentious”), the other criticism frequently leveled against Boyhood was that “nothing happens” in it. This is true. Other than occasionally having to deal with his mother’s unfortunate taste in men, Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) lives an ordinary life. He’s into Harry Potter, he plays video games, he argues with his sister, he rides his bike, he goes to baseball games with his dad, he grows up, he experiences first love and first heartbreak, he tries his first beer, he goes off to college, the end. He is, in every sense of the phrase, an average kid.

As opposed to what the creators of Riverdale and Euphoria suggest, most teenagers’ lives aren’t spent high on Ecstasy at nightclubs or engaging in consensual affairs with their teachers. Portraying them as such allows adult viewers to be both titillated, and pass judgment on what “the kids today” are into, when all relevant numbers point to the kids today being less inclined to experiment with drugs and sex than the last few generations. Boyhood was a collaborative effort, with all the actors and Linklater contributing bits of their own childhoods into the plot — to force drama or action into it to please an audience accustomed to constant movement on a movie screen would have felt both incongruous, and inauthentic.

But I’m not here to sell you on a five year-old movie. Boyhood is either going to land with you, or it’s not, and that will largely depend on how much you see your own life reflected on the screen. It was released the summer before my daughter started her senior year of high school, so I was the core audience for it, the poor sap who mistakenly bought into the idea that this was an important movie. If the entire point of the film was to illustrate how fast time flies, and how it really does feel like twelve years in your child’s life is gone in two and a half hours, it succeeds marvelously. My daughter recently graduated college, and I’m still trying to parse the fact that she’s old enough to vote.

The criticism that Coltrane as Mason is a bit of a personality void isn’t entirely without merit. He’s a little reserved and mopey, given to faux philosophizing — you know, like a lot of teenagers. Again, we’re accustomed to movie teenagers speaking in the voices of the forty year-old adults who create them, jaded and world-weary before they’ve even graduated high school. Though Coltrane is ostensibly playing a character, there’s something authentic, lived in, real about Mason. If he’s not very interesting, it’s because Linklater didn’t give him a lot of character developing tics and quirks. He is, to belabor a point, just a regular kid.

That’s how life goes, everyone has to grow up sometime.

The real depth of character in Boyhood lies with Mason’s parents, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance). It’s fascinating to watch Hawke age without vanity on screen, changing from young but unreliable fun dad to middle-aged responsible dad. He’s a little sheepish and embarrassed about it, but resigned as well. That’s how life goes, everyone has to grow up sometime.

Olivia, on the other hand, has always been the grownup. She’s Mason and his sister’s primary caregiver, balancing parenting with holding down a job and going to school at the same time. Olivia is continuously let down by the men she brings into her life hoping they’ll provide the stability and structure her children’s father can’t, only to discover that their idea of “stability” is belittling and bullying them (and occasionally abusing her). She’s never been able to live Mason, Sr.’s carefree post-divorce life, and you’d think she’d be celebratory when Mason, Jr., her younger child, leaves for college. Instead, she’s despondent. “I just…thought there would be more,” she tells a puzzled Mason, who doesn’t get why she’s sad about this next milestone in his life. 

How could he? His life has barely begun. Olivia, only in her forties, also still has another lifetime ahead of her, but right at that moment all she can see is a door closing on her primary identity. Our children never stop truly needing us, but once they’re adults it becomes a different, distant kind of need. Parents, particularly mothers, have to find something in our lives to fill those missing parts, lest we end up looking pitiful. They don’t tell you these kinds of things when you have children, that, for a little while at least, you’ll have no idea what to do with yourself when they’re gone, and they’ll be gone before you know it. It’s terrifying. It’s heartbreaking. Boyhood catches that perfectly, depicting an archetype (the middle-aged single mom) that’s usually portrayed as pathetic and a little repugnant with dignity and compassion.

Despite my aggressive defense of it, I can’t say for certain if Boyhood would hold up after multiple viewings. It makes its point in one, that all of our lives are a series of disconnected images on a screen. One day your baby is six, then they’re nine, then they’re twelve, then they’re sixteen, then they’re not there anymore, and the lights come up, and you’re not sure where to go, or what to do next. The movie’s over before it’s barely started.

Boyhood Trailer:

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