Boyhood – Slogging Through the Sprawling Unknown

by Mark Hahn


I’ve seen Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood three times already. I’m sure I’ll watch it again. It’s that good. But while you go in expecting a “coming of age” film, really it’s more a film about the difficulties in lifeespecially for adults and parents—set against a backdrop of kids coming of age. People who have had difficult childhoods look for films that somehow capture this aspect of growing up and maybe vindicates some of their scars, but this is not that film. It would be nice to think that somehow, all the struggles of adolescence are worth it. Linklater throws that premise out the window. No matter how messed up the world of adults is, the kids in this movie more or less go along with everything until they become adults themselves. That’s when they begin to see how difficult things really get.

The first time I watched the movie, I was struck by how similar the first half of it is to Martin Scorsese’s 1974 blockbuster Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In a way, Alice was an early existential shocker for me—a warning to my teenage self of just how hard adulthood was going to be. When you’re a kid, you and your life is the center of the universe—it may be hard to endure at times because every single thing that happens to you really matters, but you are so focused on the details that it is hard to really see the big stuff. When you’re an adult, you have to come to terms with the fact that nothing about yourself matters in the face of the world. When Alice gets beat up by her boyfriend, she just has to grab her kid and move on. Yes, it’s hard. Everything is hard, but when you’re the adult, you don’t get the luxury of just breaking down. You’ve got to put the pieces together yourself and keep going.

Maybe it was the two hits of purple microdot acid we both took before seeing Alice that made it so memorable to us, but after watching it, my sister and I stayed up all night trying to figure out what the meaning of the movie was and how it related to us. We were in high school. There was no “happily ever after” for Alice. She made do. No one in the movie really escaped from their hard lives. Life is just one big compromise after another.

Most kids are fed a huge load of crap about how everything will be worthwhile when they become adults. In reality, life is just one meaningless disappointment after another. In the end, Alice trades her dreams of being a singer for a chance at love. I guess that was the point—love is the one thing you can find that sooths the disappointment, but love can be hard. People can be hard.

Boyhood opens with Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a single mom living in Texas, trying to balance her personal life between an asshole self-centered boyfriend, a bad job and her kids. In the first scene we meet the six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard Linklater’s real life daughter). They’re just two normal kids. After she’s not able to get a babysitter, Olivia is left alone reading her kids stories and setting aside her personal travesties in an attempt to be the perfect mom.

More than being a movie about Mason, the movie revolves around Olivia’s struggles to get through her own life. We’re given very little access into the deeper emotions of the children, though we know there are things they are having problems with. We watch as they quietly process whats thrown at them through each of their formative years. If it wasn’t for the recurring theme of there being meaningful moments to hold onto along the way, the movie would simply be an existential study into the futility of life. But in spite of the bleakness of life, Linklater shows us that some things do have meaning. Even if we’re all just lost in life, there are reasons to go on.

When Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) enters the picture, he steps out of his flashy black GTO like an awkward kid. He’s not there to set things straight, he’s just showing up. He’s good-natured and it’s hard not to feel for his plight. Maybe he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, but as they say, “90% of success is just showing up,” and he shows up with a winning smile and presents for the kids.

We learn through Olivia that Mason Sr. had gone to Alaska after their unstable marriage ended. He comes back wanting to do the right thing, the only problem is, he doesn’t seem to know what that is—this begs the question, do any of us really know what the right thing is? While Linklater is careful not to give us any privilege into the children’s minds, he structures the movie in a way where we have to write our own emotions onto them through their actions. The kids never scream, “Why the hell is this all so fucked up?” when clearly, many scenes will trigger memories of childhood traumas for the viewers and make them remember their own emotional breakdowns.

We follow Mason from the age of six until he’s eighteen. During this entire time span, neither he nor his sister cry even once. How many kids never cry? I kept thinking over and over again, “Childhood is much harder than this!”

Part of Mason Sr. seems to just want to get back with Olivia and live the whole fantasy TV family life. Things often seem easier if you just go along with what people expect. Olivia has other plans for herself and her kids though. She goes back to college. She doesn’t want to constantly be struggling in life and be tied to an unstable wannabee musician and songwriter who will probably never amount to anything. She wants to rise above being satisfied with a charming smile, a ball of attitude and a shiny black GTO. Olivia wants to become a real adult.

In her psychology class, Olivia meets Bill (Marco Perella), the course professor and future husband #2. He’s a pompous ass trying to wield his intelligence to impress his younger female students. During a lecture that we see, he tries to show street cred by referencing a Stone’s song (Bitch) during a lesson on unconditioned responses, sexual attractions and Pavlov’s Dog.

When Bill meets Mason, he says all the right things to make Olivia think he could be a good step dad. He also has the social and financial stature to fulfill Olivia’s vision of a good husband and he is interested in her. He asks her out on a date. She needs to feel wanted. Things just happen, they end up married—unconditioned responses at work.

Olivia falls into the life of a wealthy wife and is so busy with her education and personal goals that she doesn’t notice what an alcoholic asshole Bill really is. He lashed out at the kids, sadistically at times. He becomes maniacally rigid about chores being done by the children. Then we witness as he sinks farther into his own personal alcoholic hell. This is when he tries harder to control himself and everyone around him.

The first time that we see Bill coming close to losing it, he tells Olivia, “We have to draw the line,” with the kids, and she responds while distracted by her own occupations at the time, “But with you Bill, there are just so many lines.” This might be the understatement of the movie. Sometimes people say what they really mean when they aren’t thinking about it. Still, she doesn’t seem to see the explosion coming. She is too comfortable in the world that she thinks she’s occupying—somewhere just beneath the false surface of an upper-middle-class normalcy.

As someone who grew up with a dad who struggled with emotional disorders, I refused to see the parallels between Bill and my own father the first time watching the movie, but the second time through, I couldn’t help but recognize them. In an attempt to create stability, Bill (and my father) tried to rigidly control everything around them. There were no dirty corners anywhere in our garage or basement. My dad even boasted that we were the only family on the street that didn’t have a “junk drawer”—as if cleaning up all the junk in your house would somehow keep the junk out of your brain. All this order takes tremendous energy. I think that’s where the role of alcohol comes in.

When I was young, I tried to write off my dad’s habitual drinking as simple alcoholism, but later, I realized that it was probably more an attempt at self-medication—trying to find that right balance. Attempting to loosen up enough through alcohol so he didn’t explode while still maintaining control over everything. No matter how you look at it, it’s a recipe for disaster no matter whose hand is on the bottle.

The only real hint we get of the internal demons Bill is struggling with is during the drunken plate throwing scene where he sits openly drinking whiskey at the dinner table while berating one kid after the other. When he gets to Mason, he shouts, “You don’t like me much, do you Mason?” Then, not waiting for a response from the stunned boy, he continues, “That’s ok, I don’t like me much either.”

Perhaps my sister and I just thought about things too much, but there was a time as teens when we walked all around our neighborhood at night talking about how there was no point to anything in life. We decided that the logical response to the meaninglessness of it all was suicide. It wasn’t an emotional decision, it was our logical response to the hypocrisy of the world around us. Thankfully, we decided we owed our father an explanation. We figured it would have been cruel to just kill ourselves without saying anything to anyone. Probably, part of us wanted to be talked out of it as well.

As rigid as my dad often was, he listened to what we said about wanting to kill ourselves and instantly he knew he had to be there 100% for us—and he was. He didn’t try arguing that life was great or that the world was great. He basically agreed that it all sucked. He didn’t try to change our minds about why we thought there was no point to anything. He tried giving examples of different things that we should try to live for. I remember him smiling and telling me that I had never kissed a girl. That was something worth living for. He said there are moments everywhere that make living through all the bullshit worthwhile. In the end we stayed up all night talking. It was worthwhile. I’ll never get to thank my dad for this. He died in a car wreck shortly afterward, but somehow both my sister and I made it through.

Mason Sr. slowly gives up his dream of becoming a famous songwriter and musician and studies for actuary exams so he can get a job. Much like Alice, he gives up his musical dream in a compromise with the world. The world doesn’t care about making our dreams come true—the world doesn’t care about us, but if we look at things in the right way, inside the compromises we make, there is still room for happiness.

After we see a teenage Mason making out with a girl in the back of an old station wagon, Mason Sr. shows up with his new wife Annie (Jenni Tooley) and their new baby. He picks up his kids and they drive off in a new minivan. Mason asks where the GTO is and reminds his father that he had promised him the GTO when he turned sixteen. His dad tells Mason he traded the GTO for the minivan. You can see how much it hurts Mason that the car is gone, but he says little. In a weak attempt to make things better, Mason Sr. gives Mason a custom post-Beatles mixed-tape CD that he had made for his birthday. No matter what, you know that his dad was thinking of him when he put it together. Annie chimes in from the back how he had really labored over it. Annie is a positive sparkling happy person. You can’t look at her without smiling. You can also see that she really loves Mason Sr. He may have given up on his musical career and sold his GTO, but his does have love and his children.

Probably the sweetest scene in the movie comes when Mason’s dad takes them to Annie’s folk’s house and they celebrate Mason’s fifteenth birthday. After getting a shotgun and a Bible from his adoptive born again grandparents, Mason, Samantha and Annie all sing along with Mason’s dad to a happy funny song that Mason, Sr. wrote. Everyone take turns singing verses and it almost seems like this makes up for everything. Even though Mason and Samantha both have an edge of surly teenageness, they let go and throw themselves into the song. Mason’s dad’s music brings ever person in his family together in song. Everyone has a genuine smile of happiness and are participating fully and completely while enjoying this moment.

When Mason meets Sheena (Zoe Graham) at a high school booze party, he is surprised that she is interested in his existential ramblings on life. You can see on her face that she is attracted to him. You can also see that part of it is just a game for her though. In a way, everything that isn’t entirely genuine in life can be seen as a game, but some games are still fun to play. Both Mason and Sheena enjoy playing with words, but what is actually real is how they look at each other—their mouths jabber on in between kisses while they pass time that they otherwise wouldn’t know how to fill.

When Sheena finally breaks up with Mason after screwing a Lacrosse team college jock, she tells him, “It’s kind of nice to be with someone who isn’t always so gloomy.” It’s hard not to hear Sheena’s breakup dialog without thinking, “You shallow bitch!” But, in a way, you have to accept that in his gloominess and posturing as being filled with world-weariness that Mason is hiding behind a defensive shield that partially prevents him from completely engaging with someone else. We all have defenses. Sheena has her own.

Everyone is responsible for their own happiness though, so Sheena has the right to move on. Mason wins Silver Medal in the high school photography competition for photos that he took of her. He packs up the photos after they break up and you have to wonder how they even matter at this point.

Maybe it’s fitting that I don’t remember the poet’s name who wrote the line, “We’re smarter than everyone else, so we suffer more,” because, I’ve heard the same line said in various forms a hundred times before, but I do remember the first time reading it in the poem and thinking, “What complete bullshit!” How does thinking about everything that makes you miserable make you smarter? If you’re sitting on top of all this brain power, wouldn’t pondering the philosophical implications of particle physics or the function of neural transmitters and how they relate to the existence of self be a “smarter” thing to do? What about looking at a beautiful sunset with your arm around the one you love?

Sure, everyone has that lump of existential darkness inside them that fears the meaninglessness of everything. This is why religion is a universal constant in every known human civilization, but how is it smart to let this darkness eclipse your enjoyment of life? It isn’t! Like my sister and I figured out talking with my dad, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that there is no point to anything, but what do you do with that? If there is no point to anything, then there isn’t any point of worrying about it. Good feelings are good feelings no matter what. Everyone has moments of good feelings. When we look for these, the meaninglessness goes away—it just doesn’t matter. Feelings of love and closeness supersede everything else. The time I spent with my first girlfriend were certainly much more amazing than throwing it all away would have been. It doesn’t matter how messed up the world is.

After Mason graduates from high school, the entire extended family gets together to celebrate. His dad’s drunk brother tries giving him some “bro-tobro” advice about getting pussy in college, “Whatever you do man, be careful when it comes to break-up sex. You’re living proof of this, just ask your dad. A moment of weakness and whoa-la! Here you are!” Mason Sr. shakes his head and says, “It’s not that simple,” but really, when you think about it, it is. Life is really simple. One mistake and “whoa-la!” Everything is different.

Life goes on.Your life changes and you don’t have any choice but to keep muddling through it. Life isn’t about choices, it’s about moving forward. We don’t get a chance to regret what’s happening. We don’t get do-overs. We have to go forward from where we’re at. We only get to influence the directions we take in life.

Later, Mason has a moment to talk alone with his dad before going off to college and he asks, “What’s the point to it all?

“What’s the point? I sure as shit don’t know,” says Mason’s dad. “We’re all just winging it.” This is the truth.

While helping Mason pack up to leave for college, Olivia has a total breakdown realizing that her life as a parent has ended. She cries out, “What am I going to do now?”

She’ll probably do what she’s always done—find another alcoholic asshole to fall in love with. Things will feel good for awhile before they go bad and she has to move on again. We all tend to do the same things we’ve always done. Her pattern is to fall in love with alcoholic assholes. We take the good with the bad. It still beats being dead.

At some point you can’t fight your own impulses. Setting limits of what you can live with is important, but people rarely change that much over the course of their lives. We do the same things over and over again because somehow we feel comfortable doing them.

In my own life, during the slow and difficult breakup of my marriage, I spent a lot of time driving around with my young daughter—sometimes it just came down to wanting to be any place but home. We always made it an adventure. That was how we spent time together, driving from here to there singing every song that we knew. When my daughter turned into a young teen, she became more interested in some of my mix-tape CDs. Morrissey was one of her first favorite singers. We drove around singing along all his old songs. When Stretch Out and Wait would come on, she’d always look at me when I sang the line that asks, “Is there any point ever having children?” Whenever she thought I sung the response, “Oh, I don’t know,” too loudly, she’d playfully beat me up and then we’d both laugh and laugh. If there is a point to anything, it comes in moments like this. Moments when you forget everything important and just feel happy and connected. 

Most people try to focus on the big milestones—really work to make those perfect—but the moments that matter most are the little moments that you can’t foresee or force. Morrissey sings next in this song, “All I do know, is we’re here and it’s now,” and really, that’s all any of us know. All we can do is the best we can do in the moment and be open to find joy when a moment allows it. We’re here and it’s now. That’s what we have.

Boyhood ends on Mason’s first day at college. His new roommate, his girlfriend and another female student (Nicole, played by Jessi Mechler) take Mason out to see a magnificent sunset, The sunset is made all the more magnificent with the addition of magic mushrooms. While his roommate and his roommate’s girlfriend jump around on distant rocks shouting “Fuck Yeah!” at the glowing scene around them, Mason sits with Nicole and starts talking philosophy with her. Nicole smiles and then continues with her own thoughts, “You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”

Sometimes it takes more courage to let go of your preconceptions of how things should be and just let the moment seize you. Mason and Nicole briefly share a glance at each other and then smile, looking out at the landscape before them.