When The Who named their landmark 1979 album The Kids Are Alright, it was an anthem of baby boomer self-confidence. Boomers were more than all right—they knew without being told that they would one day be in charge of everything. Great expectations formed a generational bond going back to the cradle. As applied to the insecure Gen X adults who populate Richard Linklater’s widely acclaimed but elusive film Boyhood, the album would be called “Are the kids alright? How the fuck should I know? I can barely run my own life.” Born between the early Sixties and early Eighties, Gen Xers shunned baby boomer values. They defined themselves by being cool with underachievement. Without knowing how it happened, some drifted like tourists inside their own lives.
Boyhood keeps you thinking long after you leave the theater, and the first thing it made me think about was the slide into resignation and regret that can feel crushing at forty. Despite its title, the movie is as much about parents as children. Mason (no last name given), the deadbeat dad in Boyhood, is played with charm and vulnerability by Ethan Hawke, who personified Gen X disaffection in an early career-defining movie, Reality Bites (1994). For Hawke’s character reality still bites, and it’s not much better for the blonde, slightly wan wife he abandoned, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). She starts the film in desperate straits, tied down with two small kids, no husband, and a low-level job. We watch Olivia’s struggles to break out, rooting for her to make it on her own. It won’t be easy. Her complaisant attitude toward men is going to get her into a lot of trouble. She’s caught in a bind between taking care of herself because she wants to or because no one else will.
Early on Linklater contributed to our collective image of Gen X with the comedy Slacker (1991). Born in 1960, the director is close enough to the experience of these in-betweeners that he sympathizes. No one in the story is entirely victimized or entirely to blame, entirely fixed in fate’s gun sights or entirely free. Linklater’s easygoing acceptance of lives none of us would want to live makes you feel that he can be trusted in his moral compass.
The boyhood of the title belongs to Mason, Jr (Ellar Coltrane), and every reviewer has focused almost exclusively on him rather than the movie’s larger significance. The setting is Texas twelve years ago, moving in real time to the present (Coltrane grew 27 inches and had 72 haircuts in the course of filming). We meet six-year-old Mason as a dreamy boy gazing up at the sky, and this pose, lying on his back with one hand under his head, will become a kind of emblem for his psychology. He remains a gazer, an observant eye much more than anything else. We’ll leave him at age eighteen, still dreaming and possibly realizing his inner vision of himself, however tentatively and burdened with doubts.
Because he has the instincts of an outsider and a proto-artist—Mason’s interest in photography blossoms into a passion in his mid teens—the boy is given a privileged position in the film. But he grows up like all of us, trapped in our biological family as both an intimate and a stranger. His older sister, Samantha (the director’s talented daughter, Lorelei Linklater), defines sibling rivalry in all its frustrated attention grabbing. It’s undeniably fascinating to follow the same actors over twelve years. As many have pointed out, this is analogous to Michael Apted’s poignant Seven Up series that has tracked actual children in documentary style as they moved into adulthood and faced the psychological perils, decade by decade, that constitute the human life cycle. Boyhood is made more complex by the double effect, like superimposed slides, of watching a fiction and non-fiction movie simultaneously. When an emotion catches in your throat, you hardly know if it’s for Mason or the boy playing him. (The movie was destined to become a film-school classic the minute it came out, and one can already envision PhD theses on its interplay between fiction and real life.)
As coming-of-age films go, Boyhood has more in common with The 400 Blows than with To Kill a Mockingbird. In Mockingbird the child whose eyes we see through, Scout Finch, is shaped by the moral courage of her father, the small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch. It’s an inspiring story arc; standing up to Southern racism in a courtroom was no easy feat. In Truffaut’s film a hapless boy, Antoine Doisnel, has no adults he can trust—Truffaut gives him a sneering schoolmaster as sadistic as any child’s nightmare out of Dickens. Mason’s situation isn’t as one-dimensional (or as sentimentalized) as in The 400 Blows, but his growing up is just as rudderless. The extra dimension of the story is that Mason Sr, an easy target for disdain, has an abiding love for his son. This makes the boy’s inner conflict more confusing.
Boyhood soon turns into something rarer than a coming-of-age story—it’s about the coming of consciousness. Nothing is harder to dramatize. Scene after scene unfolds where young Mason does little or nothing, passively receiving the taunts of bullies in the school bathroom, silently witnessing his mother’s bad choices in men, not rebelling against even the abusive alcoholic psychology professor she takes on as her second husband. Samantha, the child who actively whines, criticizes, and fights back, doesn’t find a satisfactory escape. She has to be goaded into saying something nice about her kid brother at his high-school graduation party. All she can manage is a grim, ironic “Good luck.”
The fact that Mason finds a true way out—the only character in the film who does—is the real reason for his privileged position. In a subtle way we don’t actually see the world through his eyes but over his shoulder. We judge the dead-end lives of the others; he doesn’t. These are just his people, ordinary souls trying to play the hand they’ve been dealt. At that same graduation party Mason’s father and mother want to let bygones be bygones, but behind the scenes they take a half-hearted swipe at each other. A drunken uncle advises Mason to use college solely to get laid. They are a sad lot, each person wanting the boy to avoid the mistakes they’ve made while learning too little themselves
Linklater took an incredible risk hiring a six-year-old child actor who might have fizzled out over the course of twelve years. Far from fizzling, Coltrane developed into a tender-eyed, introspective actor whose childhood realness has stayed with him. As the years pass, we connect with the same being, regardless of the physical envelope it inhabits—the effect is almost uncanny. One reads that the film was made by assembling the four main characters each year for a short shoot, only three or four days long. The storyline was tinkered with as it unfolded, which is understandable over such a lengthy period of time. Out of the corner of his eye Linklater catches current events large and small, from Nintendo and Britney Spears to the Iraq War and McCain versus Obama in 2008. But he remains discreet about his artistic aims until the last scene.
In it, 18-year-old Mason is spending his first day of college at Big Bend National Park, slipping off with a frowsy-haired roommate he’s just met and two girls. The stoned, excitable roommate stands on the brink of a magnificent canyon and says (I paraphrase), “Billions of years in time just so I can stand here and go Fuck yeah!” Mason has drawn apart to talk quietly with one of the girls—we sense that he’s found a potential soul mate—and they wonder aloud about time’s mysterious ability to move and stand still at the same time. Mason is amazed at his own life, how it grew from moments that were all “just now.” Then the film ends, and under the credits a song comes on containing the repeated line, “Tomorrow is nothing.”
I hesitate to pounce on this theme as an idea to analyze. Boyhood believes in the axiom that it’s better to feel your way through life than to think your way through it. Mason functions as our center of feeling, and it gives him his driving motivation, which is to get free of the people who are controlling his life without knowing they are controlling it (his words). Yet Boyhood has so much to say about the child as father to the man that I can’t help poking into the troubling and mystifying nature of time, which is what separates child and man even as it binds them.
In Boyhood time is a thief in the night that has robbed everyone while they slept. By wearing each character down into a state of exhaustion, bafflement, or worst of all, respectability, time is also their psychological enemy. Occasionally it has the power to heal old wounds—Mason’s estranged parents find a touching kind of rapport by the end—but people mostly don’t change, no matter how much time has passed. Such pessimistic conclusions get jumbled up with many other things in real life. Boyhood has the advantage of compressing twelve years into such a compact experience that its telling moments become clear symbols for where a person’s life is headed.
For example, at one point we see middle teen Mason riding with his father in a mini van, very different from the black 1968 Pontiac GTO that has been Ethan Hawke’s cool ride from the day he first appears, reconnecting with his lost brood. The GTO was his whole self-image, for better or worse. On this particular day, he’s crowing about how much money he made, $22,000, by holding on to an old muscle car long enough that it turned into a classic. (In the background we sense that maybe he sold it because he was broke or his new girlfriend forced him to; he’s gotten another woman pregnant.) He uses the occasion, as he does many times in the film, to offer life advice to his son. As a fount of wisdom Mason’s father is wobbly—he’s too preoccupied with covering up his failures.
But today he’s feeling great, until he notices his son staring moodily out the window on the passenger side. After some prodding, the boy reveals why. His father had promised him the GTO long ago, when he was in third grade, a promise now broken. Hawke denies that he ever made the promise, and when this doesn’t work, he employs the few coping skills available to him—making light of the situation, inventing feeble excuses, putting the blame on his son, etc. It’s a painful scene. Father and son are both wounded. A bond is severed before our eyes.
Every life contains a similar memory. Your parents fail you, and childhood trust is shattered, along with the belief that your parents are invulnerable. Suddenly the protector’s weaknesses are shockingly exposed. Mason’s father has let his family down before the movie begins, abandoning them by running off to Alaska. As children will, his son wants to believe in his dad despite this. Throughout the movie he’s given him the benefit of the doubt over and over—too many times, from the audience’s perspective. Not being children, we don’t buy into the dad’s charm, his affability, the presents he brings the kids as bribes for their affection. He’s a terrible father for reasons he can’t fathom, because they have to do with personal failings he can’t face. Mason Sr is cut from the same cloth as Frost’s poem “The Death of a Hired Man,” where an old farm worker is pitilessly judged:
“What good is he? Who else will harbor him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.”
So the scene about the sold GTO is at once typical and unique. It’s typical of how Hawke’s character simply is; it’s unique as a turning point in his son’s disillusionment. In a decisive moment, teen-age Mason is old enough to let go of false hope about his father. Psychologists tell us that memory itself works this way. The turning points that stick so vividly in the mind are often conflations of events that happened repeatedly. The mind crystallizes life into Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” as he calls them in The Prelude—a good alternate title for Boyhood, as it turns out. A spot of time can be mystical, revealing higher reality in a flash, but even when it’s purely psychological, there’s insight and revelation.
This scene in the car will be a spot of time for Mason. It’s not just another wave landing on the shore of memory. The mystery of time is that unlike the ocean, where every wave is the same, the waves of time manage to be typical and unique, not just when a teen-ager loses faith in his dad but each and every moment. “Just now” is the swivel on which life turns. If everyone’s life is a series of “just nows” but also a fleeting chimera (because “tomorrow is nothing”), what are we to do? How are we to exist once consciousness has dawned? For Mason, Linklater doesn’t hold out the artist’s life as anything certain; it’s probably never going to materialize. What will redeem this painful boyhood is the same thing that redeems Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: waking up. Mason achieves this; it’s his personal victory and our payoff for following him year by year. But we can’t point to a chain of cause-and-effect that made his consciousness blossom into self-awareness.
Much the same mystery is depicted in Terence Malick’s stupendous film The Tree of Life (2011), which has come up in comparison with Boyhood. The external similarities are easily ticked off. Both stories take place in Texas, both concern a boy entangled with his father’s defeats, both are panoramic in their survey of the passing American scene. The two films took their own long journeys to the finish line; they didn’t cross pollinate. Yet they are both about personal redemption and muted autobiography. Beyond the similarities lie major differences, however. For Linklater the tree of life is a modest family tree where Malick has cosmic ambitions going back to the first spark of Creation. Malick is grandiose philosophically; his characters search for the salvation by which a life of suffering can be reconciled with the Christian promise of grace. Every soul is implicated. Linklater shows us one boy trying to escape into selfhood so that he can steer his own boat.
If The Tree of Life operates on a more exalted level, that’s not to take away from how deep, moving, intelligent, and instinctive Boyhood is. Not to mention cinematic. At a time when Hollywood uses computers to construct visual brontosauruses—with pea brains to match—Linklater returns to classic editing, cutting, shot placement, and concision. He uses the camera with the economy of Raymond Carver using adjectives. There are a few set pieces, like the hilarious one where Hawke urges his daughter to have protected sex. She’s too young to fully grasp what he’s saying; she has barely kissed a boy. Her cringing, childlike embarrassment in turn embarrasses Hawke, who blurts out “Just wear a condom,” forgetting that he’s talking to a girl.
Yet mostly Boyhood proceeds without set pieces or even well defined scenes and acts (the trailer contains no memorable lines or action sequences), unfolding instead by a process of organic growth, very like watching a single cell multiply until an organism emerges. How we grow, or fail to grow, or succeed and fail at the same time—these are Boyhood‘s amorphous concerns. Being true to life’s lack of shape while depicting life’s shapeliness requires real art, and Linklater has achieved it.
You come away from the film, with its nearly three hours of fretting about childhood, parenting, and the American family, not knowing if the director’s attitude is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic about any of it. Sometimes, as in Chekhov, laying out the human dilemma is the drama. The most Chekhovian character here is Olivia the mom, and her “chop down the cherry orchard” moment comes near the end, when she’s sending Mason off to college. We’ve watched Olivia dig herself out of a deep hole, but that’s not the same as reaching the mountaintop. Having passed through a series of bad men, struggling with poverty, going back to school, and winding up as a college teacher, at one level her arc has been successful. But on another level she has yet to find herself.
The day of Mason’s departure, there’s a moment of letting go and holding on. Olivia has packed in a cardboard box with his other stuff the first photograph Mason ever took, but he doesn’t want it. The fact that it was his first—a blurry black-and-white close up of a woman’s eyes—isn’t something special. He wants to move on, to do better work in the future. He’s perplexed, then, when his mother bursts out crying, not realizing, as we already do, that the photo shows her eyes. Mason is carelessly breaking their connecting thread, and at that moment her heart is broken too.
But as in Chekhov, a singular moment is the culmination of everything in human nature. Looking back on her life journey, Olivia moans “I thought there would be more.” This despairing cry is Mason’s departing glimpse of her, acting as warning, burden, a threat of emptiness to come if he’s not careful, and yet another spot of time. The ease and beauty with which Linklater creates the scene, and many that came before, attests to the rare mastery he has attained.