Movie Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Mothers and Sons: When Your Boy Goes Off to College

A Review of Richard Linklater’s movie, Boyhood


Howard Adelman

I assure you that this blog was not pre-planned. Last night I went to see Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, with my eldest daughter who was in town from New York. The film had been given its general release two months ago. However, though I heard enough about the film to want to see it, movies had slipped to the periphery of my vision and my thoughts because I spent the summer at the cottage and because I was obsessed with the 2014 Gaza War.

When I got up this morning knowing I would write about the movie, I could not get the words “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” out of my head. I thought the song must have been in the sound track. To my surprise, it was not. The film’s sound track included classics such as Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” and music that could be identified with the twelve years Mason Elvar Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) took to grow up over the period that the film was shot, beginning with the British alternative rock band, Coldplay, and its song from the year 2000, “Yellow”, and the 2000 song, “Hate to Say I Told You So” by the Swedish rock group, The Hives, but nothing even resembling Down by the Riverside is in the soundtrack The film could not incorporate such a utopian gospel song that harked back to the twenties and was a standard folksong we sang in the rebellious sixties.

The film starts, and has been publicized, with the picture of the young Mason lying on his back staring at the stars. But Willie Nixon’s anti-war song, “Down by the Riverside,” is about laying down your sword and shield down by the riverside and trying on your “starry crown” rather than leaving the world of magic and creativity behind in the froth of a Mississippi paddle wheeler. There is no Promised Land at the end of the movie, only living in the moment. In an interview, Ellar Coltrane said at the end of a long soft-spoken digression, “I tend to be very cynical, and something I’m trying to take away from all this is this valuable lesson to just try everything. Now, I just try to appreciate every moment, because reality is happening all the time, whether you’re paying attention or not.” In the final frames of the film, Boyhood, Mason ends up taking still pictures of nostalgic leftovers from the past at a desolate service station beside the road in Texas “as the desert world began to settle down.” Mason Jr. wants to portray the world that has been lost and shows little interest in participating in the world that is coming.

After all, Mason Jr.’s father sold his vintage black Pontiac Firebird GTC that he had promised Mason Jr. when he was a young boy. The father has said that the car would be Mason Jr.’s when he turned sixteen. Mason Sr. (in another brilliant performance by Ethan Hawke) forgot that he made that promise. In any case, why would he give his son a car that he bought for $8,500 and then, instead of depreciating, because he took care of it as a vintage vehicle, he sold it for $22,000? The promise to a young boy could easily be cast aside. Mason Sr. in his irresponsibility was totally insensitive to the pain of his son.

The car itself is virtually a character in the film. When the two children, Samantha and Mason Jr. are still young, their father is driving with them so they can spend time with him one weekend. He asks them about school. “OK.” He asks them about their friends. “Good.” He asks them about whether they are enjoying school. “Yeah.” Mason Sr. veers the car over into the curve, stops and turns to his children. “I am not a father who will put up with one word answers that are an excuse for non-conversation. I want you to tell me what is really happening in your lives,” or words to that effect. He then offers an imaginary riff about their friends, their troubles with their friends and their problems at school, only to be challenged by Mason Jr. who turns the protest against him and says, “But you never tell us about your life. Do you have a girlfriend? What kind of work do you do?”

A dominant motif of the film is about conversation, how people fail to converse directly anymore with their Facebook pages and cell phones. As Linklater has said about his movie, in contrast to that of other filmmakers, there is “the tendency for conversation and communication to move in very different directions. If I may risk a generalization, a lot of young filmmakers are less interested in the expository function of dialogue than in its expressive potential. People in these films don’t talk to advance the story, but rather to provoke and manipulate one another, to fill the silence and pass the time.” Conversation, on the other hand, exists in Linklater’s films, not to offer an histrionic boost to a plot, but to reveal and explore the self and life, to find magic in the small and the large of the very natural world as exemplified in the story Mason Sr. tells about the wonder of a whale.

In contrast to “Down by the Riverside,” Paul McCartney’s song is about being trapped – “If I ever get out of here…,” the very sentiment expressed so movingly by Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette in an Oscar nominee performance) when, in a very moving scene, she breaks down as Mason, near the end of the film, leaves to go off to college. The movie is as much about Olivia being stuck in failed marriages and the responsibilities of a mother bringing up two children as it is about the coming-of-age of Mason Jr. Though Olivia longs to escape the treadmill she has always been on, she perseveres. With two children and her first failed marriage, she manages to go to college, not to get an education, but to get a better job. She succeeds, becoming a popular community college teacher of psychology only, at the end, to “give it all away”, at least the home and the artifacts she collected to provide a secure home for her two children. For Mason Jr. is going away.

There never really was any fun in her life. Even Mason Sr., Olivia’s first husband and the irresponsible but joyful and playful father of her two children who deserts her and tries to run away to Alaska, returns and surrenders his dream of escape. Throughout his life, he becomes more imprisoned in responsibilities by “the jailer man” as the frustrated musician in him continues to search for “the band on the run.” He ends up in insurance, an actuary, the very job that both Linklater and Hawke’s father had. Ironically, as Linklater stated in an interview, that is how he learned about risk. There is greater risk of failure if you enter an enterprise in a half-hearted way instead of throwing your whole self, mind, body and soul, into a singular project.

This is a movie about arrested development as much as it is a coming-of-age movie. For, as Leslie A. Fiedler so incisively put it in his classic, Love and Death in the American Novel, American fiction repeatedly portrays a society in a period of arrested development. Coldplay sings,

Look at the stars
Look how they shine for you
And everything you do
Yeah, they were all yellow

I came along
I wrote a song for you
And all the things you do
And it was called “Yellow”

It’s all yellow. Your skin and bones are yellow according to the lyrics. I have no idea what the intended reference of “yellow” was, but in the movie I associated the colour with the mulatto, Emily West, the Texan version of the Biblical Esther who saves the Jews when she is married off by her uncle to the Persian King, Ahasueurus. West was “The Yellow Rose of Texas” who saved Texas – at least in legend – when she seduced the Mexican President, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, allowing the American Texan forces to win the battle of San Jacinto in 1836 near Houston where most of the film, Boyhood, takes place.

The stars for America are not white or silver, but the yellow of a mulatto, of mixed blood in a film where it is almost impossible to find a person of colour in its full one hundred and sixty-five minute length. The Hives’ 2000 song, “Hate to Say I Told You So,” is an echo of a blog which I wrote called “I told you so,” but which I did not distribute, but self-censored when I failed to observe my own motto that, “I know I’ll tell you because I wanna.” Mason grows up wanting to “turn his back on the rot that’s been planning the plot,” but ends up with the ominous sense that he will grow up to be as trapped as both his mother and father in their very different ways were.

Time moves forward in the film as Mason Jr. goes through the twelve years of primary and secondary school, but although technology moves on and alters, influencing each stage of development so time in marked by those technological breakthroughs. But there are other markers. Politics serve this purpose, such as in the presidential campaign between Obama and McCain. So can literature – hence the reference to the party scene celebrating the release of another volume in the Harry Potter series. The film is really a flowing time sculpture, a series of scenes, each closer to a still photograph than a traditional move plot of decisions and action. For this is a film of understatement rather than histrionics.

In fact, though Mason Jr. grows up in the film and ages from six to eighteen, he basically does not change. He ends up as simply an older version of the six-year-old who responsibly completed his homework, but, instead of handing his assignment in, he crushes the assignment in his backpack. As a six year old, he has an artistic soul. As a six year old, he already refused to be shaped by customary wisdom and norms.

Boyhood is an archetypal American film resonating a constant in American culture of a coming-of-age film in a society that somehow never manages to grow up. The adults, particularly the males, are almost all assholes. Olivia’s second husband is her psychology professor, Bill Welbroack, played by Marco Perella. She marries him and creates a modern merged family, for he has two children of his own. But he reveals himself to be a dictatorial insensitive patriarch, an alcoholic and wife-beater. She flees the marriage with her two children, but abandoning, to the dismay of her own kids, the son and daughter of her ex-professor husband. Mergers are not really mergers after all, only temporary conjunctions for, as Olivia says, her own two flesh-and-blood children are her primary responsibility.

She then marries an ex-soldier, Jim, played by Brad Hawkins (a native of Dallas, Texas himself), who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He too represents the same decaying and rotting patriarchal culture that is best satirized in the scene when Mason Sr. takes the kids to visit his in-laws and his father-in-law presents Mason Jr. with the most inappropriate present for him, a rifle. Olivia may be a wonderful dedicated mother, but she cannot and does not really survive the weight of an imploding patriarchal culture. She has to flee another patriarch who also tries inappropriately to discipline her son. Discipline and hard work get her through life and allow her to manage her responsibilities, but that same discipline when imposed on others by others, almost always men, becomes a tyranny and an expression of gross insensitivity as currently exemplified in the current scandal plaguing the NFL and, in particular, the Minnesota Viking rushing champion, Adrian Peterson, who beat his four-year-old son with a switch, lacerating his thighs and scrotum.

Samantha Elvar, Mason Jr.’s older sister played by Richard Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, is an exemplification of the alter-ego of the archetypal male in American fiction, a brilliant, precocious and dynamic young girl who can act out as a nine-year-old a Britney Spears song and bowl with the best of them, getting strike after strike. At the beginning of the film, she looks like a character who will upstage Mason Jr. However, she grows up to be a character who disappears into the wall paper at the same time as she loses her role as an irritant to her younger brother and transforms into a friend and supporter. Mason begins as an icon of the powerlessness of children whose sense of agency is constantly squelched. He gradually grows up to become overtly indifferent to any adult attempts to restrict him as an individual. He is not so much rebellious as a young man determined to emerge as his own person.

This is not only a movie shot from a child’s perspective, but one which contrasts the suburbs of the city with the wildness and rough beauty of nature. Several scenes in the movie are of camping in the wilderness, from the early scene in which Mason Sr. returns to Texas and takes his son on a camping trip, to a scene in Mason Jr.’s early teenage years when he and his two friends camp out with two seniors in an unfinished renovated house where Mason and his “yellow” friend are invited to drink beer as they endure the insults in the archetypal American ritual of hazing as the older boys, so obviously insecure in their own manhood, belittle the sexual prowess of the younger boys. In the final camping scene, when Mason goes with his new roommate at college, his girlfriend, and another girl, presumably destined to be Mason’s girlfriend, to Big Bend National Park. There, they combine eating mushrooms – at least, that is the drug that they appeared to take – and Mason opines that the only thing in life is to live in the moment. There is no coming-of-age if that means transitioning into adulthood, only the ageless adolescence of American culture with its ideal of irresponsibility and freedom, escape to the wild frontier while its beauty is left only as a backdrop for existential angst.

A.O. Scott, the movie critic of the New York Times, wrote a marvellous essay called “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” published significantly on the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11.  In that essay, he took up Leslie Fielder’s theme of America itself as a culture of arrested development that cannot grow beyond adolescence. For a film critic and observer of culture, Scott himself is immersed in the understanding of culture, for his mother, Joan Wallach Scott, was the Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and his father, Donald Scott, was a professor of American history at the City University of New York. A.O. Scott regards Mary McCarthy as America’s equivalent of Simone de Beauvoir. Her book, The Group, is for him the greatest American novel of the twentieth century.

As Scott depicts it, the movie, Boyhood, is an exemplification in the contemporary era of the theme of perpetual adolescence represented in popular culture. It is the era “not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men.” All the adult men are both obtuse and obnoxious, though Mason’s irresponsible father is the best of a bad lot. One cannot help leaving the movie, Boyhood, and thinking it should have been called, “All Men Are Assholes.” The masculine insistence on an entitlement to remain adolescents is offset by the fundamental emasculation of the adult men in the movie.  They are overflowing with self-delusion and a misbegotten sense of their own grandeur alluded to in Olivia’s own psychology lecture to her own community college students. These men want respect but they only deserve derision. They portray themselves as competent, but only grow up to be, at best, conformists, or, alternatively, failures. As Scott wrote in reference to a plethora of TV series and movies, “Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.”

Was it because America, the dominant producer of culture in our contemporary society, is a republic which took power and displaced its natural parent, King George II, who was both unreasonable and irrational? Was it because America could not name his replacements (note, not replacement in the singular), who wrote America’s declaration of Independence and its Constitution. They do not become Founding Fathers until the 1930s. As Leslie Fiedler wrote, “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall, to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’” This is the underlying theme of Boyhood. It is Huckleberry Finn for the twenty-first century, for it is only Mason Jr. who retains his honesty, integrity and sense of decency throughout. Preserving youthful self-invention has its costs, however, for adults are forced to exist as eternal supporting players in a coming-of-age life story.

So Linklater’s film throws in references to Heraclitus’ dictum that you cannot step into the same stream twice, that everything is in constant flux, and there is no fixed point of reference. And those who posture and pretend there is a fixed world are only the failed remnants of patriarchal falling stars.

Boys have a sense of belonging because of the sacrifice and dedication of their mothers. Mothers provide the warmth. Mothers provide the security. They are the ones who assume the responsibility. But at what cost? There is a loss of a sense of play, a joylessness, a chronic depressed state so that males who retreat to a “fuck-it-all” posture, retain a magic charm. So it is no wonder that men in the movie camp beside rivers to regain their sense of freedom, but no longer follow the lead of Huckleberry Finn and go down the river on a raft or sail the seas on a ship as the Brits used to do.

Linklater was going to call the film Twelve Years, but fearing a confusion with Twelve Years a Slave, he called it Boyhood. He could have called the movie Twelve Years Towards Slavery. That slavery marches step by step in line with progresses in technology that are so explicitly used to mark the passage of time, but this movie is not one about Charlie Chaplin’s working on an assembly line in Modern Times. We live in the electronic and not the mechanical age. As Mason Jr. complains to his girlfriend, she and everyone are glued to their cell phones. His girlfriend finds Mason’s threat to abandon his Facebook page as going beyond his normal angular take on life, which she had always found both attractive and intriguing, but is now a threat to her. We glimpse the first fissure in their relationship.

The movie deservedly has won many prizes including Best Director and the top prize for a film at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Director’s award at both the San Francisco and the Seattle International Film Festivals. In the latter, the film won as best film and Patricia Arquette deservedly won as best actress. But as absolutely marvellous as Boyhood is as a movie, this film by the poet of the everyday is not without some serious flaws. In one scene, Mason Sr. takes Mason Jr. and Samantha to see the parents of his new wife. Mason Sr.’s mother-in-law presents Mason Jr. with a bible. The father-in-law presents him with a vintage rifle. As true as it may be to life in Texas, this scene comes across as just a mocking cliché.

There is another scene in which a former Latino gardener, whom Olivia years earlier advised to get an education, introduces himself to Olivia at a restaurant where she has taken her now adolescent children. The former gardener, now well-dressed and the maître’ d of the restaurant, in flawless English thanks Olivia for the wonderful advice she gave him years ago. The scene is cloying and sentimental. It is a misfit with the dominant theme of the movie. These scenes in a movie that is already very long are totally unnecessary in telling the story and making the main point. They should have been and still should be excised.

But, although every minute of the one hundred and sixty-five minutes was not perfect, two and a half hours were. Linklater should have resisted keeping so much of what he shot over the twelve years he took to make the movie with the same actors portrayed as they grew up. However, what we see is as much as anyone can and should expect. Just when the film is about to slip into the histrionics of most movies at a climatic moment, the film segues into Mason Jr. at a different stage of his life.

This is a masterful movie not to be missed.

One comment on “Movie Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

  1. Nate B says:

    Nice review. I like the references to Huck Finn and this as commentary on the American male and also on technology. Seeing this in relationship to Huck Finn is interesting because Huck was always functioning outside of what civilization expected.

    I would disagree about what you call flaws, being someone giving Mason a Bible and the scene with the Latino man. Why are these cliche? I would argue that life has cliche moments in it sometimes, which would make good realism. My grandparents gave me a Bible and I’m sure many students are impacted by teachers.

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