What Is Linklater’s “Boyhood” About?

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“He promised us that everything would be okay. I was a child, but I knew that everything would not be okay. That did not make my father a liar. It made him my father.”  – Jonathan Safran Foer

Did you see native Houstonian Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking film Boyhood yet? If you haven’t, then go see it THEN come back to read this post…

Everyone is talking about Boyhood because the film is a “documentary” of the life of Mason Jr. as he develops from a 6 year old until he arrives at college. The film took twelve years to make because he documented the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) throughout his progression through his “boyhood.”  This is what seems so remarkable to everyone. While watching the film one is dazzled at how seamless the transformations occur as Mason grows into adulthood. Of course we have all been raised on special effects and nothing should amaze us anymore. Perhaps what makes audiences so appreciative is the fact that they are witnessing a normal human process take place right before their eyes. A process that everyone witnesses all around them every single day, but probably takes for granted.

What was amazing to me about the film was something else.  While Mason was growing up in a single-parent home (as more than 40% of American children today are) he experienced many of the problems associated with this kind of life. Ultimately, upon reaching adulthood and launching off to college, Mason seemed completely lost and lacking any sort of direction and connection to meaning. For me it was a tragic story because I read the reports and know that this movie was probably very similar to the real experience of many of today’s teens and young adults. The most bitter aspect of this tragedy is that our society seems oblivious to what’s happening to our children because of our fickle commitment to family.

  • Mason was an unplanned birth by two young parents who divorced and did not maintain a healthy communication with one another.
  • Mason’s father was eager to create a meaningful relationship with his children but his own lifestyle prevented much stability. He only made sporadic visits. His children were unable to watch him model as a parent.
  • Mason’s mother, like most single moms, worked hard to make ends meet and ultimately decided to go back to school to increase her chances of a better paying job. This meant less time with her children as they were growing up. When she was with her children, time was not spent providing order and discipline but trying to create a close friendship.
  • The family, like most single families had to move and the children had to leave friends and schools behind. This created a level of constant chaos and emotional anxiety in their lives.
  • New stepfathers and step-families were created along the way as Mason’s mother tried to provide a better life for herself and her family. This often ended up exposing her children to unhealthy relationships, more abandonment and cynicism about adults.
  • Both Mason and his sister were initiated into drug use, alcohol and sex at an early age. Their mother seemed to condone the behavior, maintaining a friendship being her ultimate goal.
  • When Mason did have experiences with adults who tried to instill in him useful social values it was typically someone who he did not respect or who sounded like a step-father from his haunted past. Mason’s own father encouraged him as a free spirit while he himself was selling his hot rod and buying a mini-van.
  • An ironic scene in the film, Mason’s mother is teaching a college course in psychology. The lecture she is giving in this scene is about British psychologist John Bowlby and his attachment theory. Infant’s healthy attachments to primary caregivers (mothers and fathers) are essential for their later emotional development.
  • The actor who played Mason Jr., Ellar Coltrane, experienced the break up of his own family while he was making this film. He reports that one of the film crew ended up teaching him how to drive when it came time to get his license. That’s an important rite of passage for a son.

For me it was a very haunting experience as the film ended with Mason walking through the Big Bend scenery at sunset. He has traveled to the end of his childhood and was just as lost as a baby would have been. He was never given the healthy grounding in reality, the basic lessons about life, the foundational experiences of love and acceptance that all children ought to have in order to make a healthy and strong start to live.

I’m not naive, I realize that teens rebel and college kids can get really flaky. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Linklater wrote a script that seemed to present Mason as a harmless, sweet, genial yet completely lost young man once he journeyed off to college. He didn’t have anything to rebel against. In the film Mason’s mother and father never really spent the consistent and constant time instilling into him by their presence and practice what it means to love and be loved.

No one has a perfect family to grow up in. That’s not the point. My large point is that we are witnessing the disintegration of the core social institution in our civilization and no one seems very bothered. Less than 20% of American households are made up of a married couple with children. No one is raising any alarms. No one is calling it what it is – The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

When the film ended I was sitting in the the theater trying to catch my breath and process what I had just witnessed. I could hear people around me standing up and clapping.

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education.”  – H.G. Wells

About Randy Wilson

Professor of Sociology at Houston Baptist University I read, think and write about religion and culture in the United States. It's very interesting and very complicated but incredibly exciting. For many years I have been trying to figure out how people learn best (my students and myself). The classes I teach are always in a state of experimentation - trying to reorganize around what students bring to the table and where we have to go.

One thought on “What Is Linklater’s “Boyhood” About?

  1. Wow! Thank you Randy for your insightful review of this movie, but better yet, the absolute truth about the “disintegration of our core civilization”. This should be a wake up for all of us and a refocus on the sanctity of marriage and parenting. It would also help if our leaders would focus more on this “national crisis”, rather than what our kids are eating at school. I’m forwarding your blog and then I’m taking Klare to the movies……

    Love the Wilson’s Tommy

    Tommy L. Bambrick, Ed.D Vice President University Advancement Houston Baptist University o 281 649-3407 c 713 299-5638

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