Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Movie Review: The Real Subject of ‘Boyhood’ Is Motherhood

Watching the Emmy Awards last week, I was struck by how many honors are given to “reality shows.” Recognized in some shape or form for the past 15 years, the genre was finally split by the Television Academy into three categories: Competition (The Voice, Dancing with the Stars), Structured (Antiques Roadshow, Undercover Boss) and Unstructured (Duck Dynasty, Dance Moms, The Real Housewives franchise). Presenter John Mulaney joked that reality television has put writers out of work. “Just kidding,” he laughed, “We all know reality shows are written.”

Whether or not the joke fell flat (and, sorry, it did), I don’t think any of us believe that all the bad behavior we watch on those programs is honest or unscripted. They may make for good ratings, but they are rarely intelligent or artistic, and there’s a great gorge between TV’s “reality” and anything “real.”

For a better glimpse into real life (scripted or not), I recommend Boyhood, the absolutely remarkable new movie written and directed by Richard Linklater.

Following in the footsteps of Michael Apted’s Seven Up! documentary series, and owing much stylistically to Linklater’s own Before trilogy, Boyhood is a unique experiment in filmmaking. Unique and wonderfully successful.

Twelve years ago, Linklater assembled a core cast of actors and set up the basic premise of his story. Then, each summer thereafter, he shot more scenes with that same company. The characters are fictitious, yet they age naturally. The eponymous boy was really 6 when the filming started and 18 when it ended. As (still) young actor Ellar Coltrane explains, “Over the course of the production, I grew 27 inches and had around 72 haircuts. I literally grew up on screen.”

Linklater won the jackpot in the casting lottery when he found Coltrane. Over nearly three hours, Mason, an every-boy of sorts, lives through fairly commonplace trials and traumas (a broken home, a terrible haircut, a torturous older sister, a first break-up), emerging into a sensitive young man, an aspiring photographer, ready to start his adult life. Boyhood is told through Mason’s eyes, and much of the movie’s success rests on his slim shoulders.

Not that Coltrane is working alongside anything less than a rock solid cast. Lorelei Linklater (the writer/director’s daughter) plays Samantha, Mason’s thoroughly obnoxious sister. Ethan Hawke is their idealistic, immature father, a deadbeat dad with a big heart. And Patricia Arquette is their mother, struggling as a single parent, trying to make a better life for her two children and—just as importantly—for herself. The passing of 12 years affects this fractured family in different ways. The two children grow bigger and brighter, while the parents, in some ways, shrink and fade.

In Boyhood, fact and fiction merge in many ways. All of the actors age naturally (just think how many makeup artists would be out of work if every director had the patience, luxury, and budget to let time take its course), but real events come into play as well. Pop culture and politics are introduced where and when appropriate. So Britney Spears is replaced by Lady Gaga. And it’s interesting to stop and think that there was no way Linklater could have penned or directed the humorous “I’m an Obama mamma” scene two years before Barack’s political coming out at the Democratic National Convention.

The novelty of Boyhood is always present (on many occasions, the transition to a new year is subtle and hard to catch—you find yourself constantly looking for clues, most of which are found in Mason’s height, weight, and haircut), but the film is much more than that. The performances, the story, and the way that Linklater and his team seduce us into seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary are what make the experience so powerful. Some scenes feel familiar and we may think we know where they’re headed: threatened domestic violence, for example, or bullies in a school bathroom. But they resolve without the traumatic climax Hollywood usually delivers. The movie acknowledges our voyeurism and then asks us to disperse. “It’s over. Move along. There’s nothing to see here.”

The film is called Boyhood, and yet, for me, the most compelling story is that of Olivia, Mason’s mom. Arquette, in what may be the best performance of her career, conveys exactly what it feels like to be a single parent: the word is trapped. She loves her children with all her heart, and does her best for them. But she’s not a saint. She openly mourns the loss of her freedom and choices. “I went from being a daughter to someone’s fucking mother!” she complains to the first in a string of bad boyfriends. She can’t even get the suspect satisfaction of vilifying her ex. He’s a dreamer (and absent for months at a time), but he loves their children.

Mason’s mom makes mistakes, including some big ones, like serial remarriages to alcoholics. But she extricates her family and moves on. She goes back to school and eventually becomes a professor. As her children leave for college, she clears things out and sells their house, moving to an apartment where she can start focusing on herself. So, on the day Mason leaves, it’s a surprise, to both her and the audience, when she breaks down.

“This is the worst day of my life!” she cries angrily. A central character in his story until now, she didn’t expect her son to be quite so happy to leave. And, after 18 (20, if you count Samantha), she has to write a new story for herself. “I just thought there would be more,” she says.

The years go by too fast, as did the movie, which was a bit of a surprise, given its length. Like Olivia, I was ready for it to end. But I also felt a bit bereft. Mason’s boyhood was over, and I truly did wonder what would become of him. Boyhood doesn’t leave you with a happy ending, only with the sense that boyhood ends but life goes on.

Just like it does in reality.


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  • ellensue spicer-jacobson September 1, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Perfect comments. A friend noted it was like a reality show, in that the characters seem to be acting themselves. But I agree that the real person to focus on is the mom, since she makes all the decisions that seem to affect the children most heavily. Good movie, good review!