Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood, about the coming-of-age of a Texas youth named Mason Evans, has garnered immense critical acclaim, and with good reason. The conceit of the film is wonderful, in the first place. Twelve years of childhood captured over twelve years of filming; a single cast aging and changing as they act out a plot as long as some of their careers; a boy’s journey to the threshold of manhood shown in annual flashes of a few minutes each. If for nothing more than the imagination and successful execution of such a design, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood should be considered an artistic triumph.
And it is an artistic triumph. But apart from the ambition of the concept, the film is a subtle artistry, one in which the filmmaker’s craft recedes and allows us to rest in an illusion of unretouched realism: we’re not watching Boyhood but boyhood.
Those of my generation, within a few years of age of Linklater’s protagonist, cannot fail to be struck by this realism. The music, almost entirely diegetic, is carefully chosen to take us back to the years when each song was played, and other details – a Harry Potter book or video of Lady Gaga – create a mass-culture timeline on which we can plot also our own lives. There is a poignancy in this that has nothing to do with the plot of the film or its characters’ fates; we know where we were when such things were current, and watch our own childhoods unspool along with Mason’s.
A cynical observer might view this as a cheap emotional trick, a more elegantly-wrought example of the genre of Buzzfeed nostalgia. But there’s more than that going on in the film; it advances a thesis about the experience it recapitulates. Boyhood is not an allegory but a portrait; its characters are people, not symbols. But it has much to say about the characters it portrays – which is to say, about us as well.
Central to this message is the passivity of all the main characters in the film. Whether we take Mason or his mother as the protagonist (a case could be made for either), we see a story in which the protagonist suffers more than acts. There is no quest, there is no enemy vanquished, there is no goal to be achieved or missed. Rather we see an unforgiving, unaccommodating world – even for children the world is shown to be such – that establishes conditions and lays down rules that the characters must do their best to negotiate. These are small people, is the message of Boyhood, to fight to a truce is as much as they may hope.
Eve Tushnet, in her own quite perceptive but less-than-positive commentary on the film, complains that “Mason never does anything really wrong” – that we never see him commit any sins that might add a moral dimension to the story of his childhood and growth. But seen from another angle, Mason’s innocence is essential to the movie – if he struggles and suffers, it is not for his own sins.
As an implicit critique of narratives of personal responsibility, this can be seen as a Leftist position, and indeed there is a class component to it. Except for the brief period of his mother’s marriage to an abusive but well-to-do drunk, his family’s fortunes fluctuate between bare stability and desperation, and their inability to achieve much more than subsistence despite their earnest efforts is certainly one of the causes of their uneasiness in life.
But it would be crude to interpret Boyhood as making a primarily economic argument. The passivity it shows as part of the modern condition is not a matter of cash being tight, but of living in a world that forces on us terrible compromises, that has no particular bias towards our happiness, in which doing everything right gets you nowhere in particular. Twice Mason’s mother remarries, it seems as much for family stability as for romance – twice these relationships fall apart and leave her alone. At Mason’s high school graduation the manager of the restaurant where he works, beaming paternally, tells him that with hard work he can hope to be promoted from dishwasher to waiter. In a particularly touching scene, we realize that Mason’s second stepfather, who wooed his mother in part by describing the humanity he exercised as an occupier in Iraq, now works as a prison warden. This is a world in which every good impulse and effort at self-improvement will be ground down.
In Mason, some of the stereotypical behaviors for which “millennials” are derided – a lack of ambition, a preference for “meaningful” or artistic activities over productive labor – seem almost like a rational response to a world in which doing what’s expected brings little reward. This point is driven home by the numerous scenes in which older men – a manager, a teacher – give Mason patently helpless advice, lobbing platitudes at him as he tries to make his way in the world. And insofar as their attempts at socialization succeed, it is clear that the impact of older males on Mason’s life has not necessarily been a good one. In a crucial juxtaposition of scenes, an older boy initiates him into the mysteries of online pornography immediately before his mother’s current husband takes him off to the barber’s for an involuntary buzzcut – so that he might look “like a man.” In these scenes, male socialization is shown as a double ugliness, both moral and physical; adolescent rebellion is almost a form of moral purity.
This juxtaposition is typical of the plot, which is one of unrelenting bleakness, a story of broken lives continuing to be broken. There is no resolution to it: neither a happy ending nor a tragic finale. The film does not end because a conclusion is reached, but because with his arrival at college, Mason’s boyhood is over. When the movie ends with his inane drug-induced ramblings on “seizing the moment,” this should not be taken as a moral Linklater is tacking on to the end of the story, but as a final example of the unsatisfied searching and muddling-along that have characterized the rest of Mason’s path through life. We are not left with any confidence that the experiences of his boyhood have prepared him well for his future—what lessons can such a world teach except resignation and lowered expectations?
This is a dark vision – and yet it is almost impossible to leave the theater and conclude that Boyhood is a bleak film. It is too beautiful a film for that, and in that beauty, there is a kind of secular redemption. Despite the disappointment and poverty and failed fatherhood and cruelty and lack of direction in life – despite it all, there is an undeniable loveliness to this vision. Moreover (I would contend), this loveliness is not extrinsic or formal or merely artistic. Unlike another film about childhood in Austin, there are no overlays of Mozart’s music or cutaways to scenes of primordial natural splendor. Whatever is beautiful in Boyhood is cultivated by Linklater in the hard soil of realism. He does not suggest to us that we view life through spiritual goggles; he dares us to endorse it as it is.
In one of the later scenes in the film, Mason’s father encourages him to appreciate his youth while it lasts, while Mason is still able to view the world through boyish eyes: “You get older, you don’t feel as much.” The great accomplishment of this film is to allow all of us, however far from childhood, to feel with the unjaundiced intensity of a child. But Mason’s father shouldn’t be left with the final word, as if “feeling” were what this movie were about, or as if it offered us merely a sentimentality-trip. What we feel as we watch this film, what comes through between every frame, is love – a love that does not require that we endorse the characters’ life choices, and that is not diminished by their failure to find any kind of happy ending. And when we view it with such love, even such a bleak picture of life can leave us delighted and refreshed.
That would be a big enough achievement for a film about a contemporary American boyhood. But the film also offers the smallest hint that another path is possible in the brokenness of modern life. A substantial subplot in the film concerns the other family Mason’s biological father goes on to build. Superficially, at least, this family is meant as an object of ridicule: his meek, plain, blandly maternal wife does little more than haul around their young son, and his new in-laws are the kind of backwoods evangelicals that the sort of person who sees movies like Boyhood at IFC has been trained to regard only with scorn. Some of that scorn might be justified – they’re as out-of-touch as any other adults in Mason’s life, and their gift of a red-letter bible is about as useless as all the other well-intentioned advice he’s subjected to. But despite this cluelessness, this family grounded in their faith offer Mason something he receives nowhere else: a context, a tradition, the gift of an heirloom shotgun and training in its use. The Christian family might look ridiculous (and this possibility within the plot is not much explored), but it is they alone who offer an alternative, positive vision of what boyhood might look like.