“Boyhood” is a great, big, sprawling epic of a film, with some transitions so seamless that they startle you with their opaqueness, but like most grandly self-conscious tour-de-force-type groundbreakers, it sometimes bogs down in its own idiom. Nonetheless, there’s never been anything like it. And maybe never will be again.
Director Richard Linklater decided to take one five-year-old boy, Ellar Coltrane, and follow him every year until he was 18. Yes, he grows up before our eyes. He’s named Mason in this movie, and his fictional family consists of his mom, Patricia Arquette, and dad, Ethan Hawke, along with Mason’s older sister, named Samantha, but who is actually Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei. The casting works great. We wind up caring about all of them, though some, of course, are more lovable than others.
Some of the “great American transition points” are, sadly, fairly typical: a divorce. Dad just disappears for a while and works some odd jobs trying to “find himself.” He says he hopes mom might consider taking him back. She, of course, has long since dismissed him as too immature, but then becomes one of those frazzled, overworked, has-to-do-it-all kind of single moms who doesn’t seem to have much help. Or many friends. Worse, she’s so desperate to improve her personal situation that she enrolls in college only to fall in love with her first professor, who turns out to be a drunken control freak. So much for wanting a good male role model for her children. (His two children actually make for compatible buddies for hers, but the inevitable breakup means the end of that not-so-blended family.)
Through the several moves, and the never very comfortable financial situation, Mason makes a number of friends (boys he can ride bicycles with), and they do slightly naughty things like spray-paint graffiti on concrete overpasses. This actually teaches Mason that he has a little artistic talent, which eventually morphs into a fascination with photography. His sister goes through her Goth stage, while mom grows increasingly shrill and controlling, which is only ameliorated by her postgraduate ambitions that make her so busy and exhausted that she doesn’t have much time to micromanage the kids.
This turns out to be both good and bad for the now-teenage siblings. They enjoy some freedom to spend time with friends. But the lack of parental supervision opens the door for them to experiment in underage drinking and a little pot smoking before they’re even out of high school. And though the sexual scenes are thankfully not explicit, still, it’s disconcerting to watch that being suggested with underage teens. True, it’s probably something that happens frequently in our culture. But typical Presbyterian parents and grandparents are hoping it’s not happening in our families.
Some parts are poignant. For example, dad’s conversation with Mason about what interests girls –listen to them! – and admonishing his daughter to use condoms (“Oh, Dad, this is so embarrassing!”) Dad, to his credit, tries very hard to continue to be active in his kids’ lives, taking them bowling and camping and yes, hanging out in his grungy bachelor pad. At one point he pulls over in his classic GTO and explains to his kids that when he asks about their school, he needs something more than the classic grunts and one-word answers. Fittingly, they respond by also telling him that he needs to be more revealing about his life and feelings, too. Eventually, he finds another woman, whose parents live in the country and are into fundamentalist religion and hunting… not necessarily in that order. It ends with Mason off at college, which, of course, isn’t the end of his story, but is, probably, the conclusion of his “boyhood.”
So, we are alternately fascinated, interested, bored, alarmed and offended. And we’re not sure whether to laugh, cry, applaud, mock, criticize, complain or compliment. Maybe all at the same time. Or each in its own turn. Because, turn, turn, turn, for everything there’s a season, and time for every purpose under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.