"First I was a daughter, then I was a mother"
Everyone got very excited when Richard Linklater's Boyhood was released in 2014. Filmed over 12 years, with the same cast, it was as fascinating for being able to watch the characters age in real time as it was for its meditation on time itself. Ostensibly about one little boy's transition into a college-age man, it was as much about the character arcs of the adults as it was about childhood, and family was firmly at its heart.
If anything, Boyhood isn't so much a story as a series of vignettes. A boy named Mason is at its centre, and we see him transform every few minutes on screen as we suddenly land in new homes, schools, cars and relationships. When the film first came out, I was probably more intrigued (shallow confession alert) by how middle-aged Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke looked by the minute than I was by the narrative, because it's such a quiet film. It wasn't until the second viewing that I realised that the beauty of Boyhood is really in what's going on around the edges of what's going on.
Essentially, what 'happens' is that everyone-adults included- grows up. That's it. There are a few dramatic scenes, mostly involving Mason's mother's successive husbands, who Mason describes as "a parade of drunken assholes", but even these seem like drops in an otherwise uneventful ocean. In the beginning, Mason and his sister Samantha are being raised by his mum as she juggles going back to school with looking after them. She marries her lecturer, who turns out to be a violent alcoholic, then leaves him and, as her own career blossoms, marries an ex-military security guard who, we eventually find out, is also fond of a tipple. When they're not with their mum, they spend weekends with their dad, who at the beginning of the film is a free spirited, politically active aspiring musician and by the end is a suit-wearing, people-carrier driving family man; albeit in someone else's family. In the meantime, Mason navigates the usual childhood milestones of first drinks, first loves, first jobs and- if his uber-chilled, navel-gazing ways are anything to go by- copious amounts of marijuana.
Family in Boyhood
You'd be forgiven for thinking that you know exactly how this film will end, but the chances are, you won't. As the film opens, his dad looks as though he could just be another slacker dad in a film cannon of unavailable dads who turn up when they feel like it and delude themselves about how well they know their kids. But he dispels this image quickly, pulling the car over after picking them up to tell them in no uncertain terms that he refuses to be "that guy... the biological father I see on weekends, and I make small talk with him while he drives me places and buys me shit. No." And whilst it's true that for much of Mason's younger life his dad is sharing an apartment with another thirty-something musician as he tries to blaze his own trail, by the time he marries into a christian family and trades in his GTO for a family-friendly car, you get the sense that he's made peace with his ultimately futile shot at glory.
Mason's mum, however, is a different story. The default 'sensible parent', she's the one who goes to school, launches a successful career to support her family and is as available to her children as it's possible for a full-time working single mum to be. And yet she is deeply unsettled by her path all through the film "first I was a daughter, then I was a mother", she yells during an argument with a boyfriend in an early scene, highlighting how lost she feels. Later, as Mason is the last bird to leave the proverbial nest, she breaks down in one of the most poignant scenes of the entire film. "My life is just going to go. Just like that. These series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced... You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral!" Unlike Mason's dad, following her own path has led her into a kind of existential malaise.
Family is significant in another way in Boyhood. Watching the film really brings to mind the phrase 'it takes a village to raise a child'. It's often the people on the periphery of the film who serve as guiding lights for the other characters. For Mason's fifteenth birthday, in perhaps one of the most symbolic scenes, he is given in turn a custom-made Beatles album from his dad, a bible from his step-grandmother and a shotgun from his step-grandfather. Its Mason's photography teacher in his freshman year at high school who asks him to that age-old existential question "'who do you want to be"? and the manager at the restaurant where he washes dishes who lectures him on the importance of hard work, both having spotted his potential. Elsewhere in the movie, Mason's mum chats with a hispanic labourer working on their house and as an aside mentions how smart he is and how he should go to college. Later in the movie, the same man shows up at the restaurant where the family celebrate Mason's graduation. Now, though, he's fluent in English and studying for a business degree- all because he decided to take her advice. It's these little details that remind us that many people and events go into the making of a person. It's an important reflection in these transient times, where the conventional notion of family is constantly being redefined.
And in case you're wondering, Mason and his sister both grow up to be pretty sorted.
Watch the trailer