The film that moves at the speed of life. The detractors have said that there is nothing exceptional about this movie, except that it took 12 years to complete, allowing us to watch the characters actually age through time, as the actors do in real life. Some see this as a gimmick – if so, it’s a novel one that has not been as well utilized since the Up series back in 1964. Thus, the concept is anything but hackneyed.
True, the story would not have been as effective if characters had been aged by cosmetics and latex, rather than nature. But it wouldn’t have worked as just a time lapse video either. It was by synchronizing the passage of time with the pulse of real life that Linklater created magic. Since the process was center front, Linklater gave himself permission to focus less on plot which turned out to be a GOOD thing. It’s a story of quiet reflection that proves slow does not equal dull, making drama for its own sake look cheap and expedient by comparison.
Boyhood lacks twists and turns, but at 2:05 hours, I was never bored. In fact, when action threatened to rear its dramatic head, I resisted. Would the roommate abuse Samantha? Would the older woman seduce Mason? Would the stepfather hit the boy? Would the jilted teen lose it? When the characters veered towards danger or pain, I found myself praying, “Don’t spoil it. Don’t make this movie about that. I don’t need to see another, assault or death.” That would be the EASY path, because trauma creates instant empathy. Building audience investment via mundane moments takes time. Simplicity is hard.
Adding to the understatement, Boyhood flies without a tear track. In comedy, laugh tracks (hopefully) trigger a like response from the audience. Likewise, when we see emotional characters onscreen, we tend to follow suit. Here, in most cases, the characters do not react, leaving us to assess an event independently, rather than being informed or coached by their responses. This feels organic, because the story deals with children who often only understand the impact of developments in retrospect. When something occurs that will change your life, you realize it after the change happens, not upon the occurrence.
Additionally, some of the movie’s impassivity comes from the Mom’s (Patricia Arquette’s) parenting style. Even though the story began in 2000, it somehow had a seventies vibe for me. Like MAD MEN it highlights shifts between past and current attitudes subtly, by serving slices of domestic life without comment. In MAD MEN, people smoke incessantly, let their children frolic in plastic bags (free of warning labels) and nonchalantly yell at their neighbors’ kids, activities which are now taboo.
Similarly, Arquette, like many single working mothers, doesn’t have the luxury of placing her kids on pedestals and planning her life around their play dates. They are her priority, without being the center of her universe. When she moves, they are dragged along. She doesn’t/can’t take time to seek their permission first. This was normal decades ago, but we live in a more conscientious society that analyzes the long term effects of child-rearing choices, perhaps to a fault, but certainly more than Arquette’s character did. The movie doesn’t judge her, but we must. The father (Ethan Hawke) receives a healthy dose of censure in the dialogue, while the script is silent on assessing Olivia, the mother. But that’s life. In the real world, we don’t get regular report cards. Instead, you do the best that you can -- or you fail to do everything that you can -- and life goes on any way. People grow, graduate and move on, regardless. Boyhood observes the quiet tiny ticks by which time proceeds, rather than studying the Great Bell chimes, reminding us that they’re equally potent.
We’re first introduced to young Mason. He’s about 7 years old. Inquisitive and quick, but too busy daydreaming to concentrate in class. His mother picks him up from school, appreciating and encouraging his sense of wonder, more than scolding it. But she moves in a flurry, with more errands than time to run them.
Later Mason is playing outside with his friend, Tommy, spray painting an aqueduct wall. His sister Sam rides by and orders him to come home at Olivia’s command. Sam obviously revels in the power that being 2 years older than her sibling bestows. His friend takes more notice of the girl than Mason does and I wonder if we are seeing a budding crush.
At home, Mason is watching tv and hardly looks up when Olivia’s boyfriend enters and tosses him a greeting. Hard to say whether Mason dislikes the man or is so used to various boyfriends that he hardly gives any particular notice. That night, he hears the couple arguing. The boyfriend is complaining because Olivia doesn’t want to leave her kids and go out on the town with him. He says she’s using the kids as an excuse. She responds that it’s not an excuse, it’s her world. She loves them, but had her kids too young. She’d LOVE to be single, unshackled, coming and going as she pleases, but she can’t. The boyfriend storms out and it’s hard to say whether she is relieved or regretful. One can’t say that Mason is eavesdropping on the two exactly, because they aren’t bothering to keep their voices low. His face is blank. He’s heard arguments like this before. Do they hurt him? Make him feel unwanted? We don’t know.
In their shared bedroom, Sam is annoying Mason with her gyrating Britney Spears impression. Oops, I did it again. “I’m not that innocent!” Although, she is taunting her brother, who is minding his own business, when Olivia bursts in on the two of them, Sam bursts out crying, pretending that Mason has victimized her and Olivia yells at him. Mason objects and the mother doesn’t care who’s right or wrong, she just wants them both to shut up. She tells them they will be moving back to Houston. They’ll be closer to Grandma.
Sam makes a “my life is ruined” fuss, but it’s more designed to irritate her mother than a display of true emotion about leaving. Mason says nothing, but when his mother tells them to paint the walls so she can get back all of her security deposit back, his eyes linger on the children’s height chart, as it’s wiped away by the paint roller. He’s the only one who seems to notice.
As they pack up and drive away, Mason sees his young Tommy riding his bike, waving goodbye. I think, it’s a movie, we’ll see that boy again. They’ll reunite. But they never do. And that’s how it is. People have important places in our lives for a finite period of time. When you’re with them, you don’t know that it will end. But then it does, not with a bang or a whimper, but most likely with a small wave that you may recall years later – but probably won’t. Movies make these partings poignant, in life perhaps they should be, but aren’t. You’re lucky to remember Tommy, much less the last time you saw him.
In Houston, Sam continues to excel in school, while Mason is apathetic. The things that do interest him, like drawing, don’t get much attention, quickly over-shadowed by Sam’s achievements. But she’s not mean. She’s just a sibling. As they grow, she evolves from bratty and pushy, to subdued, but supportive.
In Houston, their dad makes contact, turning up like a bad penny. Olivia arranges to have him pick them up and drop them back off at Grandma’s so she doesn’t have to see him. The grandmother welcomes him coolly, emphasizing how hard her daughter has to work to support her kids. Alone.
Dad is energetic and happy to see them, but vague about where he’s been or if he’s planning to stay around. At bedtime, Mason wistfully seeks confirmation from his father that there’s no real magic in the world. Dad tries to assure him that nature harbors just as many mysteries and wonders as any fairy tale. For instance, the majestic whale is magical, right? But elves, Mason presses. They aren’t real. Dad has to admit that they aren’t. Knowing there’s no Santa Claus is one thing, but having to accept whales in place of wizards is another. Childhood drops another veil.
After their visit, Dad insists that he wants to take them back home, rather than using Grandma as an intermediary. It’s annoying to have this interloper demanding facetime with Arquette’s character, after having left her alone to raise their children. He shouldn’t get to dictate their interaction. The kids look from a window as their parents talk. Will this exchange lead to a fight, a brief reunion? They’ve seen both before and possibly don’t care which comes now, knowing it won’t last, either way. They seem beyond the Parent Trap dream of having mom and dad reunite. Impassive, as always. It’s not like they’ve been scarred so badly in the past, that they’ve become numb. Instead, they’ve seen the same patterns repeat themselves so often that they now take them for granted. They watch, like the audience.
One night, Olivia takes Mason to school with her. He meets her professor who is charming to Mason and clearly charmed by his parent. Before we know it, they’re married. He has two children of his own, a boy and girl. All four kids await the couple’s return from their honeymoon eagerly. It’s like the Brady Bunch. The step-siblings are friends, not rivals. The stepfather elevates Mason’s clan into the middle class. All the kids have clothes, bikes, video games, their own cell phones. Of course, it’s too good to be true. The father is controlling, but masks his temper behind a pleasant demeanor. He also masks his drinking, hiding liquor in the garage. Soon he’s berating the kids for failing to do their chores. Sneering at Samantha, but also belittling his own son, becoming a drill sergeant, telling his wife that the children lacks discipline and deriving pleasure from his intimidation tactics.
Olivia has qualms about his behavior but, as too often happens IRL, does not speak up, choosing the security that her husband brings over her kids’ psychological well-being. She’s away studying when the stepfather gives Mason a buzz cut against his will. If the worse thing that any child endures is an unwanted haircut, this world would be a happy place. Still, it’s clear that the stepfather meant to humiliate, to quash Mason’s will and individuality, make him feel helpless. That “I’m the boss and there’s nothing you can do about it” power trip causes harm, no matter what the context. Rape of the Lock is satire and compared to forced intercourse, the Baron’s snipping of Belinda’s curl is a laughable matter, but judged on its own terms, it IS quite a violation. Thus, so Mason’s shearing. Olivia is sympathetic to Mason’s misery, but I can’t help thinking she should have left her husband then and there. Of course, we don’t even know if she could afford to leave at that time, but that’s how it is. We seldom need to know someone’s whole story to decide that they should have acted differently, could have done more and have lapsed in not doing so.
The kids still visit with their dad. They no longer scramble for his attention, but are older, reserved. He’s fed up. When he asks about school, he doesn’t want a non-committal, monosyllabic answer. He wants DETAILS. Fine they say, but it’s a two-way street. It’s not like he tells them all about HIS life either. Touché. I wonder if they’ll tell their father about the stepfather’s darker side. They don’t and I suppose that would have been a cliché, the two men getting into a territorial fight over the kids. Their father has a steady place. He has a roommate, who is a member of some band. Mason and dad sleep on the sofa and they give Samantha the bedroom. She slides on her earphones and isolates herself from the world. I worry that the roommate will come in upon her. Thankfully, nothing untoward happens.
And maybe that’s another way this film is like life, where you constantly worry that bad things will happen and 9 times out of 10 they never do.
Life goes on at the house. One day the kids come home to find Olivia, crying on the floor of the garage. She’s been knocked down, probably because she found her husband’s stash of liquor and objected. But she tries to hide all of this from the children. At dinner, the stepfather dares anyone to challenge. It’s his house. He’ll do what he wants. He picks a fight with the children, particularly Mason, wanting him to cower and throwing a glass at him. It doesn’t hit the boy, but it’s frightening. The stepkids suggest that he’s had drunken outbursts before, but they’ve never been this bad. The audience begins to fear what might come next.
On another day, Olivia is missing and StepDad wants to know who has heard from her. Who knows where she is. The kids all deny having had contact with her. He sits them down and one by one demands to see their cell phones, so he can review the call log and find out who’s lying. It’s tense. The boys both pass his test. They have no phone calls to or from Olivia. Stepdad decides he can trust his daughter, his favorite, and doesn’t look at her phone, but then he comes to Samantha … my heart beats along with hers. There’s a call from her mother registered. She insists that she has not lied. After all, she didn’t hear from her mother. She just listened to a phone message. In the voicemail, Olivia told them she had to go for awhile and they should stay in their room. That’s all.
I’m expecting the irate StepDad to hit Samantha any minute. He doesn’t. He checks his bank accounts and sees that his wife has cleared them out. He takes the boys to a liquor store and has them get a check cashed for him, by store clerk who trusts him, still thinks of the Stepdad as a good customer, upstanding citizen.
Back at home, eventually, Olivia bursts into the house and tells her kids to get in the car immediately. Mason and Samantha try to get pass him, but he blocks the door. No one is leaving. But Olivia has brought a friend with her. A witness, ready to call 911. Stepdad backs down and lets the children pass. They jump in the car and drive off, leaving their step sister and brother looking on. Mason and family bunk at the friend’s cramped house. Samantha complains. They have no clothes. Nothing. The mother yells back that she’d rather be alone with nothing than living in oppression. She doesn’t care if Samantha has to go to school in the same clothes. She’s tired of the griping.
The kids wonder what will happen to the 2 children they left behind. I wonder too. Olivia was a surrogate parent to the stepchildren for years. Does she have any guilt about leaving them? We don’t see into her head, really, but she doesn’t seem that reflective or caring. She’s more every man for himself. She is responsible for her own kids, not the world’s. She assures her two that she has called Child Protective Services on the stepdad though and the four children can keep in touch with each other through social media and phone. We don’t know that they ever do. We don’t ever hear any more about the stepkids.
Olivia gets her degree and they can afford a home of their own. Olivia becomes a professor and likes to host parties where they have philosophical discussions with their deviled eggs. She writes the checks. She makes the household decisions. She is no longer the single mom who had to marry a professor for stability. Now, she’s the professor. Mason is tall now, a deeper voice. A young man. One of his mother’s friends looks at him appreciatively. He hangs out with high school boys. They brag about sex they’ve never had and taunt one another. At one point when kids get aggressive with Mason in the bathroom, I wonder if he will be the object of bullying, but that passes. Taking all of the coming of age steps, he gets a job as a dishwasher, works on his photography whenever he can get time in the school’s dark room, he makes out with a girl in the back seat of a friend’s car, smokes weed, comes back home a little high. His mother notices and is shocked, but reacts with a shrug, not threats. Her little boy is grown.
A student of Olivia’s chats with Mason, tells him what a swell, open-minded instructor Olivia is and I suppose this makes the audience (and Mason) see her in a more multi-faceted light. She’s just Mom at home. She’s a talented, inspiring person in the eyes of others. There’s one ex-vet who catches Olivia’s eye. He’s younger, a free and deep thinker. He gets along well with Mason. They marry. But it’s not long before things go downhill. The husband starts brooding, is angry. Drinks. Mason comes home and he questions him harshly. He towers over the slight teen and we think he may take a swing. He doesn’t. As he turns away, we see that while what he was wearing looked like a military uniform, it is really the clothes of security guard. In that one shot, we grasp the frustrations in his life. This time the mother doesn’t have to put up with it as long. She’s the homeowner now. She can just toss him out. She doesn’t have to tolerate abuse from anyone –except her son who doesn’t like to put his own plate in the dishwasher because he complains that he washes too many dishes at work.
Meanwhile, the dad has married a nice younger woman from a conservative family. She has a baby. A half-brother for Samantha and Mason. Old animosities gone, Olivia gets along with Mason Sr.’s new bride and baby. Sam and Mason visit their stepmom’s parents, good bible-thumping people who are thrilled to give Mason a shotgun for his birthday. They practice shooting out back and go to church in their Sunday best the next day. Mason’s dad doesn’t embrace his in-law’s lifestyle, but doesn’t reject it either. He goes with the flow, having settled down now and given up his dream of being – who knows what he wanted to be. He allows himself to mock the old folks a bit and his wife calls from the distance, “I can hear you.” Caught, Mason, Sr. laughs it off, completely domesticated. He seems like he will give the new baby the father Mason and Samantha never knew. Pop has turned his old sports car in for a van. Mason is taken aback. The father had promised that car to him. For once, we see Mason angry, hurt. The father doesn’t remember making such a promise. It was 10 years ago and may have meant something to Mason, but was just talk to the dad. He tells Mason to get his own car and maybe he can be cool, “like I used to be.”
Mason sulks a bit and it’s interesting that of all the small disappointments in his life, this is the one where they show us the sting. Parents, especially THIS Dad, constantly let their kids down and are seldom as sorry about it as they should be. For Mason, this is far from the only time he’s been disappointed, but maybe it’s the slight that’s easiest to articulate. As broken promises go, it’s a concrete one. Usually, our relationship obligations are nebulous and breach gradually, rather than in a clean fracture, so the breaks are harder to identify, to rebuke, to stop. Every day a little death … in the buttons in the bread. Every day a little sting. In the heart and in the head. Every move and every breath (and you hardly feel a thing). Brings a perfect little death.
Mason learned not to expect much from his father, who always left everything open-ended. But this car was a specific pledge and Mason seems to have allowed himself to build a few hopes around it. The dad brushes off his son’s sullenness over the car and, instead, presents him with a mixed tape he made himself. The stepmom laughs at how much time the father spent making it. For him, it was a compilation of his youth so doubtless he put more effort into it than most other things in his life.
At school, Mason has met someone special. Sheena thinks him weird, but likes listening to his musings on life. He feels that she “gets” him. They plan to go off to college together. They visit Samantha at the University. They tell their parents they’re staying with friends, but actually plan to sleep together in Sam’s dorm room. They hang out with Sam and her boyfriend. Then linger at a café until it’s late enough to return to the dorm and claim a bunk bed. They absorb campus life and the bohemian vibe, the unique characters, that surround them. This will be a place that welcomes freedom of expression.
When they get back to the dorm room, make out and fall asleep, they are awakened by Sam’s roommate coming home unexpectedly. You must be Mason. I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s awkward for all 3. She doesn’t kick them out but stammers and says she’ll return later, as if SHE’s the intruder. Once she’s gone Sheena and Mason collapse in giggles. But it is not to be.
Sheena falls for a college guy and dumps Mason. She is still prepared to go with the prom with him, since he already had the tickets, but he rejects the offer. She told her friends they were broken up. He doesn’t want to be her pity date. He sees no need to talk to her any more. She tells him to grow up. Lashes out. She says she was tired of being around him anyway, always brooding and profound, rather than just having fun. But aside from her defensiveness and guilt, her anger seems to indicate a little hurt, as if she still has a bit of feeling for him and wishes they could have continued as friends.
I fear that Mason will become her stalker, but he’s just said. He submits photographs he took of Sheena into a contest and wins one of the prizes, although his photography teacher once yelled at him for being lazy. The money will help towards his tuition. He hangs out with his dad as they listen to his father’s old roommate’s band rehearse. Seeing Mason mope the father says he’s sick and tired of hearing about Sheena and declares she wasn’t good enough for Mason anyway. It’s a show of support I think Mason appreciates. From their position on the balcony over the stage they hear the dad’s friend acknowledge them. He wants to dedicate a song to Mason. Someone he’s known since he was a boy and whom he can’t believe has grown so fast. Where did the time go?
Olivia throws a graduation party for Mason. His father shows up and congratulates Olivia on the nice spread she put out. He says he’ll give her some money to pay for the food later. Of course, she doesn’t believe it. He tells Olivia what a good job she did raising the two kids. He sees Olivia’s mother, his old nemesis and recalls what a crone he thinks she was. Although, she really only disapproved of him for abandoning his responsibilities. He still doesn’t realize or acknowledge that she had cause. He’s gotten older, but hasn’t grown.
Mason’s mother’s friend hits on him. There are toasts. Everyone’s proud, even Mason’s boss at the restaurant who has chewed him out, is there to say Mason’s a good kid. Mason accepts their well wishes, but his head is facing towards the future and he’s more focused on moving forward than remembering how far he’s come.
When he heads off to school, Olivia begins to cry. At first you think she’s going to say how much she’ll miss him, but instead she makes it all about her, declaring that she went from being a daughter to a mother and hardly had a life in between and now all her good years are gone. If I’d been on the fence before, this little diatribe seals my dislike of Olivia, but I saw a Patricia Arquette interview where she pointed out it’s a moment in time. An hour later Olivia will be a caring Mom. This rant doesn’t define who she is as a parent, any more than the mistakes she’s made along the way do. It’s all part of a bigger whole. And although the adult should take the high road, selfishness in the mother and child relationship runs both ways.
Olivia takes them the kids out for a last meal together before the semester starts and tells them she’s selling the house. They’re more worried about where they will go to do their laundry now, than they are about her empty nest emotions. As they finish their meal at the restaurant, Linklater has a misfire when a kid comes up to Olivia’s table and informs her she changed his life by telling him to go to school a few years ago. Now, if he had been a student of hers, I could see him appearing and declaring what an influence she’d been. But we were introduced to this guy when he came to the house to work on Olivia’s pipes (no that’s not a euphemism). All he did was tell her that the pipe she had was weak and the replacement one he had was strong (he stood on it to demonstrate). I'm no plumber, but I could have told her that. But she was impressed by this diagnosis and responded to him, "You're smart. You should go to school." And those passing words caused him to turn his life around? That's not exactly life-changing or personal. I guess if she’d said to a cashier, “I like your sweater. The color looks good on you,” the girl would have credited Olivia with prompting her to go to design school. Now, this plumber … if Olivia had shown him how to apply for a grant, ok. If she’d said, "I went back to school and it was hard, but I made it work and you can do it too," that might give him cause to think. But just saying "go to school" isn't enough to change anyone's life.
Still, we’re told that because of her he went back to school, learned English and is now the manager of the restaurant. If they wanted to show her, her kids and the audience that she made a difference in this world and is even a hero, to some, they could have given us a more powerful example than that.
Mason goes off to college and when he arrives at his room immediately makes friends with his dorm mate. The guy is going rock-climbing with his girlfriend and her roommate, would Mason like to join? Mason does and as he sits on a ridge, chatting with the new girl, he finds they have things in common. If he’d feared that he’d never again experience what anything as good as he’d found with Sheena, we see him learning that that’s far from the case. Hearts break. Hearts heal. Rinse and repeat.
Boyhood tells a big story, in a small way. It’s like water that smoothes and shapes a rock, in little waves and ripples over time. Sometimes, you can’t even notice the change, but then 12 years pass and there it is.