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Boy in the hood, but who or what will he grow up to be?

dir: Richard Linklater


Twelve years a slave to Richard Linklater’s ambitions. What a terrible fate for any set of actors.

Boyhood is a fairly unique film in how it was put together, but not in its subject matter. Its subject could not be any more mundane if it tried.

The reason is, the subject is Life. And Life, itself, at least other people’s lives, can be pretty mundane. That’s not a criticism. Most films except biopics aren’t really about people’s (or character’s) lives, broad swathes of their lives. They’re usually only about a certain period of time in which really exciting stuff happens to them, and then when they return to normality, crushing mundane normality, the credits are usually rolling.

Boyhood transpires over twelve years in the lives of a bunch of characters and the actors who play them. That doesn’t mean it only covers a twelve year time period in terms of its scope. They were filmed for a few days at a time over the course of twelve actual years. Now that’s commitment to an idea. We literally watch the actors, especially the kids, grow right in front of our eyes. The film is nearly three hours long, so there’s a lot of growing up to do.

Since it’s called Boyhood, you can pretty much guess that it’s the story of a particular boy growing up in Texas. Richard Linklater is from Texas, and he was a boy at some point. Are there autobiographical aspects to the story?

I’d put money on it. The boy in question here is Mason Junior (Ellar Coltrane). He’s ‘junior’ because his deadbeat absentee dad is called Mason as well (Ethan Hawke). His mother (Patricia Arquette) is a single mother in that case, and he has a sister, Samantha (the director’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater). She’s a few years older than Mason.

And what is Mason? He’s a boy, just a regular boy. He does boyish stuff, completely unremarkable boyish stuff. Where ‘action’ occurs, it’s in the actions that Mason’s mother takes over the course of the next twelve years that determine the circumstances of Mason and Samantha’s lives. It’s never anything Mason does.

Having extricated herself from an unfulfilling entanglement with the kids’ father, Olivia (Arquette) gets involved in various relationships. Their biological father tries to keep playing a role in their lives, even if it’s the cliché every-other-weekend divorce dad type stuff. There’s pathos enough in these bits. As common as it must be in our lives or the lives of people around us, I do feel something of an ache when I watch divorced parents trying to maintain their connection to the kids they no longer have custody of. Trying to maintain a connection with your kids sporadically, as well as when, in Mason Senior’s case, you’re still some guitar-strumming douchebag who lives in a hovel with an equally wastoid roommate, it’s hard, it’s bloody hard.

Olivia, through no fault of her own, seems to have gradually worsening luck over the glimpses we get of the twelve years of these characters' lives when it comes to relationships. Alcohol, the bane of many people’s existences, plays a major role in the dysfunctional relationships on display here.

Since the film is from the perspectives of the kids (on the most part), we don’t see the parental relationships argued out or angled from what the adults are concerned with. We see it as the arbitrary conflicts of the grown ups, the people who make the decisions that uproot or disrupt their lives without their feeling like they have a say in matters whatsoever. Alcohol, in their eyes, is just this thing which leads perhaps one parent to act horribly, or that both parents fight about, like fighting about money, or fidelity, or the chores, or about money again.

At such a young age, alcohol is just a thing, a poisonous thing that adults use frequently. All the adults in the film drink, but only with some of them does it become symptomatic of far more terrible problems in Adultworld.

It was hard for me to watch much of this film, at least the sections that show the long term impact of drinking on embittered men. The way we watch a certain repetition of themes, in that, Olivia meets a decent guy, the guy starts drinking more and more over a year or two, and then crisis point is reached, to then move on, have their lives horribly disrupted, only to watch it happen again and again.

Olivia is an intelligent woman, struggling to bring up a family and complete her college studies in order to better support her kids, but we’re not privy to the groundwork of these relationships. We just see her meet particular guys, guys who are upstanding and moral, from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, decent men who eventually just fall apart, like any of us can.

I don’t think the film is saying “it’s a problem with men” or that it’s anti-alcohol, necessarily. Other characters, including Olivia, including the kids’ biological father, are routinely shown drinking, but it’s just social drinking. Where it’s used as an indicator of deeper problems, that’s when it becomes something horrible.

And it does get horrible. There’s a scene of domestic abuse that is implied, and then clarified later on, and a horrific (in terms of how it feels, not in terms of violence) table scene when one of Olivia’s poor husbands goes berserk. What horrified me the most in this scene was not just what he does to his kids, but the admission of self-hatred he makes just as he’s launching into his hateful behaviour towards the children in his care.

It got to me, because the guy, drunk as a skunk, drunk as any guy who covertly drinks all day long, had enough self-awareness to know how horrible he was being, but not enough to stop himself. It was… fairly confronting to see that.

What we get is the result, what we get is the impact, what we don’t see are the underlying pathologies, the back stories, the origins. We are getting potted histories, momentary glimpses into these people’s lives, and we’re never guaranteed that it’s the most important moments of that ‘year’ of their lives that we’re getting to see. We see the upshot, the punch line, not the set up.

It’s also gutting to see that, from the kid’s perspectives, it’s the disruption to their lives that they resent, the disruption to their finances or having to move and say goodbye to their friends that pisses them off, even when they’re fully aware of why their mother needed to end whichever relationship, for their own safety and the safety of the kids. But that’s not what kids talk about when they express their frustration.

The bastards.

With that particular sequence, the one with the wealthy, controlling uni lecturer alcoholic Bill (Marco Perella), it was doubly horrible, since he has two kids from a previous marriage, and while we know Olivia, Mason and Samantha get away in time, we can’t stop wondering for a while what happened with the kids Olivia couldn’t save from Bill’s drunken wrath.

Since this flick strives for kitchen sink realism at all times, there are no magical solutions to these problems, not for anyone.

The next guy’s possibly just as bad, but I don’t want to make it sound like the whole film is about domestic abuse and alcoholism. It’s about growing up, it’s about having almost no say in the rapid changes going on in your life, finding solace where you can, adapting with circumstances, and just carrying on, carrying on, as best you can muddle through.

As time passes, of course Mason and Samantha change, and change horribly, in some ways. We watch a beautiful, cherubic child become an awkward, hideous teenage boy, covered in acne and wispy facial hair, until he gradually becomes less hideous and less awkward. No steps are taken to minimise the impact puberty has on this kid, oh no way. Puberty takes a serious bat to these kids, and it’s a testament to the quality of the flick that they look virtually like no two other kids you’ve seen in a film ever before or after. Not for this film the conceit of getting perfectly made up and coiffured twenty year olds to play teenagers like it’s some vampire soap opera or Gossip Girl bullshit.

Real, awkward, unpleasant kids with no say in their lives, and no agency with which to change anything about it, until of course they do. As they approach their adulthood, they have more options, sure, but, especially in Mason’s case, there’s even less of a clue as to what to ‘do’ with this vaunted ‘life’ adults keep nattering on about. And why should he? Maybe everyone else thinks they know what Mason should be doing or should be like, but he has almost no idea, up until the very end, where he might have an inkling.

It might be boring by now to go on about what this flick does, and how unique it is, but it’s great in a lot of ways that don’t need to be categorised with a Guinness World Records kind of mentality. All of it transpires in Texas, and it’s interesting to see a film where other aspects of Texan life are emphasised over the clichés one might expect (something which Linklater has often emphasised, with his other Texan based films like Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, Bernie probably others as well). He particularly seems to show Austin in a positive light, which is virtually unheard of.

When Mason’s dad remarries, and happens to marry a decent woman from a godbothering background, the details of ‘that’ side of life are displayed, as when Mason is given a personalised Bible and his own shotgun for his fifteenth birthday, but it’s not commented on. It’s not mocked, or emblematic of anything other than that’s how a lot of decent Americans live and think is the finest way for people to live.

Of course it looks absurd to the rest of us (non Americans), particularly the shotgun, but it’s just presented as commonplace, like everything else in the flick.

It’s that emphasis on de-emphasising the specialness of all these moments that works in the flick’s favour. It lulls us into believing we’re watching something realistic, if not real, because it mostly lacks all the melodrama we’d associate with this kind of stuff.

We do get a lot of speeches, however. So many men feel compelled to tell Mason how he should feel about stuff or what he should be doing all the time that it really forces us into some shoes we don’t really want to wear. We feel, after a while, as powerless and bored with being lectured as Mason must have, constantly having ill-informed men talking down to him, trying to exert their will or their egos upon him, to little avail. The only one who doesn’t do too badly is his biological father, and even he says a lot of stuff that’s bullshit but at least it’s well meant.

Does it do a good job of giving a viewer an idea of what it was like growing up over the last twelve years as a boy, or at least this boy? Absolutely. I couldn’t relate to any of the early parts, but the powerlessness that gradually gives way to freedom, horrible horrible freedom, yes, I can attest to that completely. And the curative, healing power of a cute girl’s smile for healing a broken heart? Yes, that’s a stone cold fact.

I know it’s getting plaudits and awards and good ratings and such, and maybe it deserves them. It’s just that calling this flick a masterpiece because of the way it was done kinda overstates the actual achievement, really. None of the acting, with the exception of certain scenes with Ethan Hawke or Patricia Arquette, is really that memorable. Mason mumbles his way through childhood, and by the time he’s in his late teens he becomes that annoying teen that sees no worth in anything and conspiracies in everything. All stages are represented, yes, but they’re not all cinematic masterpieces by any stretch.

I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece at all. I do think it’s a towering achievement, and I applaud everyone involved, but let’s not trip over each other’s dicks praising this as the greatest near three hour long film since Lawrence of Arabia or Patton or anything, okay? It’s strong, but it’s like 12 drop in visits with some people you don’t know that well who aren’t really that interesting, who tell you about some of the interesting / stultifyingly mundane things that happened to them over the last twelve years.

Which is about as interesting and entertaining as our own lives are, when you think about it.

8 times the loss of Mason Senior’s GTO muscle car is the cruellest fate for anyone in this film out of 10

“Everything? What's the point? I mean, I sure as shit don't know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We're all just winging it, you know? The good news is you're feeling stuff. And you've got to hold on to that.” – wise words, wise confusing words of wisdom - Boyhood