On “Boyhood” and Parenthood

Patricia Arquette reading to a 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," an IFC release.

Patricia Arquette reading to a 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” an IFC release.

When you become a parent, you fall in love. And then, you spend the rest of your life worrying about the love of your life getting hurt. It is a lifelong commitment to anxiety as you watch your child grow and make decisions/mistakes without you. This strange mixture of unmatched joy and constant terror bubbling just beneath the surface of your seemingly normal demeanor is rarely captured in a film. But in Richard Linklater’s latest film Boyhood, that reality is deeply felt.

Though the parents of the main character are not themselves the subjects of this story, it is their anxieties that we in the audience are made to feel most viscerally as we watch a young boy grow from about 6 years old to 18 years old. In that time, the boy grows up, falls in love, has his heart broken, graduates from high school, and embarks upon the journey to adulthood that begins with college. And every step of the way, Linklater gives us moments of tension that we think will build to devastating tragedy, but which, instead, play out just as they would in reality 99 percent of the time, without much drama at all.

For example, in one scene, an adolescent Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is hanging around with some older kids, comparing notes on sex. The idea of calling in some prostitutes is raised, likewise raising the hairs on the back of our neck. We’re bracing ourselves for a revolting display of tween sexuality, when it turns out it was just a game of chicken, and no prostitutes come. The discussion quickly moves to another even more frightening demonstration of masculinity and that youthful feeling of indestructability, when the group decide to hurl saw blades at a wall. Linklater takes great pains to show us a closeup of the blade, build tension through editing, and then allow the scene to play out in a stunningly non-dramatic way. It’s as though he is saying to the audience, “Scared you, didn’t I?”

So meaningful are these sequences, that they caused a bit of stir after the screening I attended at the Nantucket Film Festival where MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, who attended the festival,  asked about the intentionality of these sequences and why they were constructed this way. The producer attending for Q&A said she didn’t think they were intentional at all, which was shocking, because clearly they are. Instead, a member of the audience responded to Matthews: “because that’s how parenting is; you are always worried and most of the time nothing bad happens.”

Likewise, the parenting choices made by Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are sometimes questionable. They are, like all of us, flawed characters who sometimes give in to the pressures in their lives. Whether it’s the stream of bad relationships (on the mother’s part) or the inability to step up and be an adult (on the father’s part), these are all choices that feel real, and they are handled in a way that acknowledges the fact that bad choices don’t necessarily mean “bad parenting.” Ultimately, these are parents who, though divorced and wildly different from each other, love their children and would die for them. But they are not perfect.

Much has been made of this film’s production methods, in particular its timeline. The film went into production 12 years ago and stayed with the same cast, so what we see on the screen has a documentary quality to it as each actor–children and adults, alike–age in real life as well as in the fictional universe. No doubt, this is what drove many to add this film to their must-see list, and it is a remarkable display of commitment from all involved. Yes, the results cannot be imitated without going through that long production process, but it isn’t the reason this film should be seen and celebrated. Boyhood is remarkable for its even-toned realism. It is a slice of life–albeit a large slice of someone’s life–and it eschews any of the phony drama of most modern movies, in favor of the real drama that is real life.

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