A father consoles his son after a breakup. “For what it’s worth,” the father says, “we’ve all been through the same thing.”
The son nods a little. “It’s not the same though,” he says.
This is a very good exchange between Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his father (Ethan Hawke) that comes near the end of Richard Linklater’s remarkable and stunning Boyhood (2014), which chronicles, nearly in real time, the growth of a young man from the age of 5 to 18. This post-breakup conversation is sweet and honest, and in a different movie would mean the emotional apex of these two men’s bond. But because we have seen the father and son’s elastic and winding relationship ebb and flow, Linklater won’t allow us a wholly satisfying (and perfectly conventional) coda to the paternal proceedings. The father is trying to be comforting by offering to Mason that his problems are universal and that the girl who got away was beneath him. This insight is true and heartfelt and shows a real concern, but the message falls strangely flat to Mason, who doesn’t want to hear that his pain is not unique, and he still carries a torch for the same woman his father is dismissing. The scene is positive, however. Father and son are not on the same page, but while this disconnect would have caused strife at a different point in their relationship, now they are happy that they are trying.
Much of Boyhood is like this. The movie, which was filmed over 12 years with the same cast, understands that the stories of our lives are not made up of big set-pieces and polished speeches but of a long string of unremarkable narrative moments that are truly profound emotional ones. Mason has lived a fairly typical 21st-century American life. His father and mother (Patricia Arquette) divorced when he was very young. He sees his freewheeling, immature dad infrequently, and his overwhelmed and necessarily serious mother can’t afford to be fun. In her frenzied search for a partner and stability, she keeps selecting the wrong man in desperation, and Mason and his older sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) are tossed around south central Texas. People come in and out of their lives but for the most part there is just the four of them, emotionally gravitating toward and away from each other, rarely a team but always a family.
The movie is a natural companion piece to Malick’s The Tree of Life (2010), which was also about a second child growing up in Texas. Both movies are able to express the unique emotions of childhood—the shame of disappointing your parents, the embarrassment of being favored by a parent, the frustration of being misunderstood—but while Malick was able to do so in abstract expressionist poetry, Linklater gives us real life, instantly accessible and mesmerizingly recognizable. The miracle of the movie is that it has scene after scene of, strictly speaking, inconsequential moments, a winding, ambling, rambling string of everyday, mundane even, events, and yet it never fails to fascinate, never feels indulgent, always feels absolutely essential.
The second miracle is the vertiginous logistics of how it was made. When I read about the movie and that Linklater was filming it in scenes here and there with the same cast for more than a decade, I worried that this was a gimmick. How much more poignancy could be gained this way that makeup, special effects or using other actors couldn’t provide? The answer is a lot. This is a bold narrative experiment, a luxury to be sure but one that added untold depths of feeling, as we were able to see Mason age before our eyes, each haircut and change of appearance suggesting shifts and evolutions that no screenwriter could anticipate or create. Much the same could be said for the parents who gain emotional heft and, since the story is not exclusively theirs, their arc, particularly with the father, who is absent for large gaps, can be gleaned from their appearance. Hawke goes from a slicked-back wannabe rebel, carefree and childlike, to a responsible and boring assimilator. Arquette has responsibility and maternal selflessness thrust upon her, and we see that effect on her body, on her hair and her clothes just as we see it on her demeanor.
Seeing a movie like this exposes just how brainwashed we become by traditional narratives that have the same familiar and, therefore, expected beats. Outside of one harrowing adventure with one of the mother’s unsuccessful marriages, Mason’s life is relatively unexceptional. This doesn’t make it boring or unworthy, but as he navigates adolescence, he makes some bad decisions, decisions that would be punished with dramatic consequences in a different movie. He drinks, perhaps too much, gets average grades, is bullied. None of these threads amount to much on their own but generate the tapestry that is Mason’s life. When Mason is in eighth grade, he attends what is generously called a party in a barn. The fete consists of only five boys, three of whom are Mason’s age and two who are high schoolers. They drink beers, exaggerate about their sexual experience and mess around the barn. They break pieces of wood and throw saw blades at the wall.
Because I was watching a movie, my blood pressure shot up, expecting some disaster with the farm equipment, or perhaps a tragedy related to drinking (Mason’s underage drinking is a recurring theme: there are moments when he comes home buzzed to a full house of his mother’s friends and associates, and we expect a scene that never arrives. The full breadth of the pressure to drink put on Mason both by schoolmates and adults is cumulative, and, since we see a number of adult alcoholics in the movie, we worry about its future implications). At the barn party, the older boys, who have been teasing the younger ones for their sexual infantilism, announce that they have hired hookers for the evening. The younger boys, mirroring my own emotional state, show a mix of fear and excitement, heavy on the fear. Alas, the older boys reveal that they have been lying and the tension is dissolved. In a traditional movie this whole sequence would be wrong. Not fulfilling the narrative promise of underage booze, sex and sharp objects would fail Chekhov: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” But the point of Boyhood is not drama, it’s not about what happens but how about how it happens. My heart raced for Mason because I knew that something bad could take place in a cocktail of drinking and poor choices, and, as I’d seen him grow for eight years at that point, I felt almost like a pseudo-parent, watching my Mason slip away from me but being unable to do anything about it.
Despite a wonderful performance from Coltrane as Mason, who never forces anything but is able to suggest quite a bit with his eyes and his smile, the movie is sort of disingenuously titled Boyhood. Not only do we get a full sense of the person who Samantha is, but the central relationship in the movie is between Mason and his parents. The character who changes the most from beginning to end is Hawke’s Father, who acknowledges his transformation and the shame of bad timing himself when he reveals near the end that he has finally become the man that Mason’s mother wanted him to be. The underlying tragedy of that is that Mason’s mother, despite being part of that transformation, doesn’t get to reap the rewards of it as the father’s maturity becomes the prize of a different woman who simply came around at the right time. This movie made me weep for single parents who must give and give of themselves only to watch the people around them find wisdom on their own timeline. Arquette’s character had to find it all at once and always, otherwise her children and she wouldn’t survive.
The movie is a chronicle of the little indignities that Mason’s mother is saddled with, the cutting injuries so casually tossed her way. The jerking of a head to avoid being kissed before the school day, the exasperated hiss of “Mom!” that suggests that even the idea of being kissed before school is a mortifying thought—these are the slings and arrows that she must suffer while the father learns parenthood one weekend at a time, able to cherry-pick the best interactions that will be most fun for all of them. Of course, Mason’s father, once indifferent to his absence in his children’s lives, can’t mask the disappointment, the pain, of missing so many things, and it becomes his curse to shoulder so much regret. Mason, who is bright and insightful, begins to see this near the end, and it’s what makes his last interactions with his parents so poignant. Mason doesn’t have it all figured out as much as he thinks (the final line of the movie, uttered when Mason is beginning college as a freshman, is a masterstroke of undergraduate obviousness parading as brilliance), but he’s emotionally open and sensitive and always has been, and we want nothing else but for him not to lose that.
Boyhood is a near perfect movie, soft and subtle, rambling and reflective, but never far from the truth. I saw so much of myself here and yet never forgot that I was seeing another real person, that I was engaging in the movie’s most valuable gift: empathy. We’ve all been through the same thing. It’s not the same though.