Boyhood. There’s 12 years of SPOILERS ahead.
How to describe? I’m not even sure where to begin.
At the outset, when you go into it, you need to set aside traditional movie questions you’d normally ask to gauge a film’s overall effectiveness. “Was I entertained? Was I in suspense? Was I left hanging on the edge of my seat?” It’s more of an educational experience than a traditional plot based film so the typical questions don’t apply.
Growing up is painful, difficult, and has its series of ups and downs that few of us, if any, are spared from. The film begins in the early 2000’s and follows a family for 12 years. This unique idea leaves the viewer to watch the child actors grow up on screen before our very eyes. They start out as little kids and end up fully grown adult college students. And film crews shoot all of the bittersweet moments along the way.
Cultural references are crowbarred in all over the place. Music, movies, politics all serve as cues to let the viewer know how much time has passed. From the cheap clunky apple little Mason uses in the school library to the sleek apple he uses in high school, from little Sam singing Britney Spears in the beginning to Obama’s campaign, there’s a definite effort to make sure you, the viewer, are aware that time is moving on.
Director Richard Linklater took on an insurmountable task with this project. It’s hard enough to keep a normal production on track, let alone one that requires the same cast to return every once in awhile over the course of twelve years. Thus, it surprised me that he didn’t walk away with the Oscar for best director, even just for the courage to throw himself into the world of an unusual, time consuming project that from the start was destined to not become a big box office draw.
The film begins in the early 2000’s. Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, thus the director could guarantee from the start that at least one cast member was going to return over the course of twelve years) are little kids living with single mom, Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette. Their biological father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is the stereotypical screw-up, driving around in a sports car, having just returned after abandoning the family, and is now making an effort to be a part of the kids’ lives.
Throughout the film, Olivia tries to improve herself. She goes back to school. She marries a professor who seems great on the surface, but as it turns out, is an abusive alcoholic. When his rage fits go out of control, Olivia packs up Mason and Sam and leaves, and the kids are sad as they’d grown attached to their step-siblings, the professor’s kids.
Time moves on. Olivia becomes a professor herself. The kids aren’t the only ones who grow up before our eyes. The adults do as well. Olivia marries a student, a man who at first, appears to be a very charming war veteran, but, and perhaps in a bit too much of a cliched manner, becomes one more angry drunk that Olivia has to dump. Honestly, how many jerks must this woman suffer through?
Sometimes we look at kids, we see them with their video games and cartoons and we think they must be happy, but as the film shows, they suffer from a lot of sadness and angst. As a society, we should be aware of that. Kids in divorced families especially have it tough. Over the course of twelve years, Mason and Sam live with their mom, see their father every other weekend, suffer through two abusive drunk stepdads and overall just live confused lives where it looks like stability is never going to be an option for them.
We see Mason, a little boy, going from the typical, silly kid who crushes his homework in his backpack and forgets to give it to his teacher, to become a young man with a dream of becoming a photographer. We watch all of his milestones, from dressing up as a boy wizard to attend a Harry Potter premiere all the way to his graduation.
We are even spectators as Mason goes through his first breakup, something that happens to all of us. If it’s never happened to you, you’re one lucky individual. We’re even left with some hope as Mason meets a new girl with similar interests, the point being that Mason has learned not to seek out just any old girl but to find one who likes him for who he is.
I do have a complaint. Throughout the film, I feel like we’re asked to cheer on Olivia as she stands up for herself time and time again against a series of lousy men. At the start of the film, Hawke’s character, Mason Sr., is painted out as the typical “I refuse to grow up” family abandoning loser. By the end of the film, he has, in a very noble manner, taken the sadness he feels about losing his family and channels it to become Mr. Super Reliable, a great husband to his second wife, and wise, all-knowing Super Dad to Mason Jr, Sam, and the newborn he has with his second wife.
That’s very admirable. People shouldn’t be punished forever for their mistakes. If, like Mason Sr., they turn their lives around, they should be rewarded. But where’s Olivia’s reward? For a brief moment, we’re hoodwinked into thinking maybe her reward is found in the soldier she marries but out of the blue he’s turned into an abusive drunk. Didn’t we already have an abusive drunk in the form of the professor? Did we need a second one?
Getting back to my complaint – at the end of the movie, Olivia is left a sad old woman in a small apartment. Mason Jr. and Sam are off at college having the time of their lives. Mason Sr. has become the Dad we all wish we had. Olivia, the most responsible person in the entire movie, is the only one left without a reward. That just seems unfair to me.
At the end, there’s an implication that she regrets not sticking with Mason Sr (Hawke). Maybe she was too hard on him when he was young. Maybe she spent too much time chasing perfection. She went for the college professor and the war veteran, two men who were adept at holding themselves out to the world as perfect, but on the inside, had their own demons.
We’re left to think “if only Olivia had been more patient with Mason Sr.” No, he wasn’t perfect, but given time, he’d of morphed from the caterpillar he was to the butterfly Olivia was looking for all along. Are we all guilty of that? Probably. We should all try to be a little more patient with our significant others because ultimately, the grass isn’t always greener. The perfect person you’re searching for isn’t out there. No one is perfect.
That may be all well and good but the Mason Sr. we’re shown at the start of the film? We can’t begrudge young Olivia for turning a cold shoulder to him. So I’m not sure why Olivia doesn’t end up with some kind of reward at the end for all her struggles.
Like this review, the movie goes on a bit too long, though it is understandable. They had a lot of footage taken over a twelve year period and wanted to use it.
Is it worth your time? Yes, but just remember, it’s more of an educational experience than an entertaining one. If that’s not something you’re looking for, you might want to pass it up.