In the second half of Richard Linklater’s beautiful film Boyhood, the detached, seemingly sullen protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) meets a pretty girl named Sheena at a very typical high school party. Teenage Mason is not the talkative, openly inquisitive boy of his younger years, but when he speaks with Sheena, something clicks. He enjoys talking to her, and he admits it openly. As he realizes this shift in himself, he explains that he never tries to verbalize his thoughts or feelings because it usually “does not sound right.” Besides, he thinks, “words are stupid.”

This scene might sound like typical juvenilia. And on one level, it is.  Linklater’s film—which many claim is plotless—shows us the progression of a boy’s life from age six to eighteen. Much of the film’s brilliance comes from its ordinariness; there are no shocking narrative twists, and Mason’s life is as real as that of your next door neighbor’s world-weary, often silent son.

Linklater has followed these actors for twelve years, filming a ten to fifteen minute short film each year in order finally to piece them together to create the plot of Mason’s life. It is deeply important because it is so truthful. The film’s plot is life itself, the everyday miracle of growing up—tracing the milestones, joys, and challenges of childhood, adolescence, and the awkward transition into adulthood.

Because we have followed Mason through his own, often-unspoken, narrative, the words exchanged with Sheena transcend formulaic juvenilia. By this scene, we know Mason, and just as importantly, we know the story of his parents’ relationship with him. Because of this, we understand this conversation is one of the first times he has demonstrated self-awareness. Mason has had lots of words spoken over him, about him, and to him—often from people who have not taken the time to listen to or understand him. We empathize with his detachment because we have seen the complex story of its development.

In a film built on the relationship between the passage of time and the development of character, Mason’s hope lies in the understanding that the present is constant, always renewing itself.Mason’s divorced parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), seem unable to understand the perspective of Mason and his sister, Samantha’s (Lorelei Linklater). They cannot enter their children’s emotional reality in order to re-narrate and make sense of their experiences of pain, isolation, and fragmentation. Although the “sins of the father” (in this case, both parents) do come down on the son in the form of an emotional distancing from himself and others, Linklater does not judge Liv and Mason, Sr. for their poor parenting skills.

He—very honestly, and sometimes even endearingly—shows us that Mason’s broken parents are struggling with what Pascal labels the “wretchedness” and “greatness” within every human being. We see parents that love their children but are both too needy to attach healthily with them. They are unable to disentangle the chords of their dysfuntion, so they cope with their emotional neediness in different, albeit both selfish, ways: Liv clings, and Mason Sr. floats in and out of the picture. Although often silent and withdrawn, Mason is clearly aware of the internal chaos that he has inherited.

The disjointed relationship between Mason and his fractured parents is ironically highlighted in the middle of the film when preteen Mason steps into his mother’s college classroom. Now a psychology professor, Liv is giving a lecture on John Bowlby’s attachment theory, the idea that human survival is dependent on a parent and child falling in love with one another, a bond developed when the child feels secure and cared for by a physically and emotionally present parent.

Liv attempts to provide security and structure for her family by marrying men—after Mason Sr.—that appear to be stable. She attempts, through these marriages, to find herself. When they fail, the family moves—often, preventing the possibility of stability and attachment. One of the film’s most jarring and emotionally complex examples is Liv’s response to her second husband’s drunken tirade against her children. Liv’s knee-jerk, alarmist response—uprooting them immediately from their environment without time for closure—is both understandable and necessary, but she does not slow down enough to understand her children’s needs, provide them with emotional comfort, or offer a clear, coherent explanation. Their childhood narratives now contain one more jagged, raw, incoherent edge.

Although Liv is physically present, she is too conflicted to attach with her children in a fully nurturing way. But their father is both physically absent and too emotionally immature and conflicted to be able to provide a secure attachment. When dad first drives up in his mid-life crisis GTO, the kids’ faces beam, eager, anxious. They have not seen their father for over a year, and this seems too good to be true.

As they drive off in the GTO, we find out that it has no seat belts, an obvious symbol of their dad’s recklessness in caring for his children. Although not threatening, he is also not stable. And this instability is unsafe. From the beginning of the film, Mason Sr. gives his children advice, telling him the way things are, from relationship know-how to the composition of his favorite Wilco track. But his absence undermines his authority; he has not earned the right to speak into their lives.

Instead of attempting to decode his children’s behavior, Mason Sr. ushers them into his childish adulthood, complete with bachelor pad, aging musician roommate, and the aforementioned GTO. Like Liv, Mason Sr. loves his kids but does not know how to see their needs through the fog of his own unpacked neediness. Mason Sr.’s fatherly advice loses all credibility when his son learns that he has sold the GTO that was promised to Mason at sixteen. Mason becomes understandably sullen—but his dad denies ever having made this promise. Again, there is no attempt to understand or make sense of his son’s feelings, simply the callous, childish comment: “That was my car. I can do what I want with it!”

Other non-dads float in and out of Mason Jr.’s life, doling out dad advice; from his mother’s multiple husbands, to his high school photography teacher, to his Mcjob boss: these awkward surrogates attempt to control, normalize, or help Mason. Mason’s actual father is never short on words, but often short on emotional intelligence. Yet towards the end of the film, directly after Mason Jr.’s graduation party, his dad takes a moment to look his son in the eyes and tell him, “I believe in you. You are really special.” Although his father’s words are sincere and poignant, they, too, are “stupid words” disconnected from the reality of Mason’s experience with an often-absent father.

Mason’s ever-present mother doesn’t attempt supportive, albeit empty, words for her son upon his leaving for college. As he is packing his truck for the first big move away from home, Mason finds Liv crying. It soon becomes clear that she is crying only for herself, and Mason is once again left to re-narrate and make sense of his own passage into adulthood. He remains visibly emotionless when his mom claims that “[t]his is the worst day of my life” and explains that she has had a series of milestones in life—her marriages, the birth of her children, earning her degree—but now the last milestone is complete, leaving only death to come. Mason responds with a deadpan comment, “Aren’t you jumping ahead like forty years?” Liv’s grief is understandable, but the film’s depiction of her highlights only her raw neediness, a neediness that has transmitted both guilt and instability to her children.

Yet the film ends with a vision of a hopeful, independent future. As Mason drives to college, the golden sunlight beats down on his weathered Toyota, and he listens to Family of the Year’s “Hero,” a song that narrates his need to escape a seemingly inevitable fate of becoming the answer to his parents’ needs: “Baby needs some protection/ But I’m a kid like everyone else/ So let me go/ I don’t wanna be your hero.”

Soon after this journey, Mason is hiking with new-found college friends, and a subtly flirtatious girl asks him, “So, how do you feel?”  Thus far, Mason has heard many “stupid words” out of the mouths of those who do not understand his internal language simply because they have not taken the time to ask him this very question.  But as the film closes, he reminds himself, and us, that it is “always right now,” and we realize that there is still time left for this question to be asked and for Mason to be understood.

In a film built on the relationship between the passage of time and the development of character, Mason’s hope lies in the understanding that the present is constant, always renewing itself. Although the past has written itself into his narrative—in both positive and negative ways—the present moment always presents a new opportunity for internal and relational change.


2 Comments

  1. Good analysis, Mary. The movie was so hyperreal for me that I don’t think I could possibly acheive what you have here. But then again, you saw it twice–right?

  2. I really agree with what you see in the film; once you get used to the fact that nothing is going to ‘happen’, it is as you say beautiful in its ordinariness. However I found it much sadder and left feeling a bit more hopeless for the characters than you seemed to. So many of them find life empty and search for something to make sense, without Christ the whole film’s ‘plotlessness’ seems to echo the world’s emptiness.

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