On Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Posted: September 3, 2014 in Cara Blouin, movies
Tags: , , , ,
Cara Blouin

Here is a quote from Manohla Dargis’ review in the New York Times of the movie “Boyhood,” by Richard Linklater, which — as I am sure you have heard — used the same actors over a decade to tell the story of the life of a single child:

It’s no surprise that watching actors naturally age on camera without latex and digital effects makes for mesmerizing viewing. And at first it may be hard to notice much more than the creases etching Mr. Hawke’s face, the sexy swells of Ms. Arquette’s belly and Mr. Coltrane’s growth spurts. You may see your own face in those faces, your children’s, too.”

I am not familiar enough with the sexy swells of my own belly to know whether or not I could have had some deeper human experience by identifying with those of Patricia Arquette. But I did not actually see my face in the two mentioned, because my face is female.

“Boyhood” is frustrating because of the completely unexamined assumption of its creator, and apparently every critic who saw it, that the experience of boyhood is universal. It’s even more frustrating because it is so pleased with itself for honoring that THIS particular boyhood is something we can all identify with on some very fundamental level.

That may as well be true, because even though I’ve never had a boyhood, I’ve been told the boyhood fucking story so many times that sometimes I get confused as to whether all of our voices don’t change when our testicles drop. The alienating shame of not ever having gawked at a lingerie circular on the back bumper of a truck feels entirely deserved. If I don’t understand, it’s because I didn’t do boyhood right by being a girl.

Linklater’s 12-year devotion to the story of this one boy is supposed to be some kind of bold artistic action, and I guess it would be if it weren’t a 12-year exploration of the boringest story ever told again and again and again and again. More insight into the experience of being a white, middle-class, straight, American male. And lest you think that I am just bein’ progressive, the bigger problem is that this white, middle class, straight American male does not have any interesting or defining characteristics. He is the hero, the protagonist of this film not because there is anything about him particularly worth examining, but because his white straight maleness makes him Everyman. It is “Unmarked Case: The Movie.”

Although the movie is set in Austin, Texas, everyone in it is white, with the horrifying exception of Enrique, a Mexican guy who comes to work on the drainpipe in the family house. After deigning to enunciate a few words of Spanish II to a man who speaks English, the mother tells Enrique that he’s smart and should go to college. You might think that Linklater wanted to make a criticism of the obnoxious trope of the white savior here, and you could hold on to that hope until a scene near the end of the movie, where Enrique– now empowered with a restaurant job, thanks to the mother’s encouragement, and tells her that he took English classes and went to community college. She changed his life, he said. Because she told him he was smart, despite only having spoken three words to him. (His companion, an unnamed Mexican worker, and apparently not smart, was ignored and presumably still fixes drains.) Lucky Enrique, all sprinkled with magic white lady approval. That is probably what he paid his tuition with.

As stock and empty a character as Enrique is, at least he does something. The boy whose boyhood it is, Mason, is surrounded by characters far more interesting than himself. His clever sister grows up alongside him doing little to distract from his important, central boyness. His complicated single mom strives to make a better life for him, his deadbeat dad is absolved of responsibility for abandoning him by being totally cool, his girlfriend Sheena never tires of listening starry-eyed to his dumbass prattling about what a fucking genius outsider he is, his teachers support him despite his laziness and reticence. He moves through the world without participating, deciding anything, caring about much, making mistakes or appreciating the sacrifices of others, until finally, despite being a crappy student, he graduates high school and everyone throws a giant party, congratulating him and telling him how special he is while he skulks and smirks in the corner, vaguely annoyed. You know. Boyhood.

It’s interesting that the experience that Linklater decided to masticate for twelve years was that of an American boy, white and middle class, growing up in Austin, Texas and identifying as an artist. A photographer, no less. If any other kind of person tried to equate their personal biography to nothing less than the universal human experience, we’d call them an egomaniac right before we dismissed them utterly.

What’s happening in this very unexamined life is what’s happening in the movie. Linklater writes a giant, moon-eyed love letter to Mason, and his film congratulates the hell out of the character for being sensitive and important. Like its main character, the movie goes on for hours about nothing, assuming that you’ll be its Sheena, rapt with attention. By the time we get to the graduation party scene, it’s like Linklater himself is standing cross-armed in the corner simultaneously irritated by and waiting to hear the praise that he knows he’s entitled to.

Linklater clearly doesn’t know it, but this is a movie about entitlement. The way slouchy boys who don’t try hard are entitled to be the center of everyone’s attention, the subject of everyone’s musing. The way their merely existing is cause for celebration in the form of a party or a three-hour opus. It’s about the way that white, straight, American boys are entitled to the great gift of being neutral, without the distracting marks of femaleness, or color or queerness or disability or foreignness or faith. The way that turning a camera onto them is supposed to automatically say something about all of us. Those of us who don’t identify with what we see are meant to do the work of finding the universal inside the particular that is boyhood. But the men and boys who could be Mason without any mental jury-rigging, the men and boys who are the base which gender, race and sexuality deface, will never be asked to watch three hours of nothing happen to a little black girl and call it universal.

In one of the (about a thousand) final scenes of “Boyhood,” we find Mason slouching around his school’s darkroom, skipping class and behind on his work. A teacher comes in and finds him there and gives him a speech about how it’s not enough to be talented, how he has to try if he wants to succeed. Then, to temper this harsh message, he tells Mason how special he is, and how brilliant– how much smarter and more gifted than his classmates. To give Mason the push he so clearly deserves, the teacher assigns him to do something out of his emo comfort zone– to photograph a football game. In the next scene we see Mason taking arty shots of the goalpost and ignoring every other person and event around him. The teacher pleads that he “shoot the game!” But Mason just shrugs and keeps putting single blades of grass in instagram focus. That’s his privilege, after all.


  1. John says:

    I really appreciated reading your article, especially your critique of the Enrique character (I found the link by googling “Boyhood Enrique” to see if other people had the same problem with his scenes as I did). It’s certainly reassuring to hear a dissident voice among the unanimous praise, although I think in some areas you might be selling the movie short. Maybe I’m giving Linklater too much credit, but I don’t think he celebrates Mason’s neutrality/indifference quite to the extent you suggest. I think Mason is really a vessel to the more interesting characters in the film, and the fact that he doesn’t do much himself is a conscious decision on Linklater’s part. He’s not really presented as an Everyman – he’s awkward, arty, mumbly – and scenes like the one at the football game show that his anti-social behavior is in fact pretty annoying. Linklater seems aware of that, and really uses the “experience” of boyhood as a way of capsulating events around Mason. Why else would he not take a heroic part in saving his mom from her abusive husband, like the spunky kid in many a Hollywood movie? Why else have him ungratefully chastise Ethan Hawke’s character (who is clearly a loser who can’t even always convince his adoring kids that he’s “cool”) for giving away the car he believed should have gone to him someday? I’m not arguing against the depiction of Mason as a character lacking “any interesting or defining characteristics,” but I’m pretty sure that’s kind of the point. I guess I should mention that I myself am a white, straight, middle-class American male, but for me the idea behind the film wasn’t to locate a “universal” story in Mason’s maturity from child to adult – while there were a few poignant moments I identified with (the scene with the bully for instance), I didn’t feel that the movie was trying to tap into my own personal history and experiences. I mean of course Linklater used his own history and experiences to create the movie, the same way any filmmaker would and the reason why this story wasn’t told by Lisa Cholodenko or Spike Lee. There’s nothing self-congratulatory about the film itself: I remember the graduation party as being kind of depressing and more symbolic of life pushing the characters forward rather than marking any kind of achievement. In fact the only way I can forgive the worst aspect of the movie – the Enrique scenes, perfectly summarized in your piece – is that Patricia Arquette’s character feels like she’s done nothing with her life, and the only difference she’s made in someone else’s was almost entirely by accident. Moreso than entitlement, Boyhood is a film about losing one’s own sense of responsibility as time relentlessly moves us all forward. Mason goes from a kid to a young adult in a 3-hour blink of an eye, the reflection of perhaps not making the most of what he was supposed to have done with himself in that time period being the focus of Linklater’s story. Anyway, these thoughts are pretty scrambled, but thanks for making me think harder about the film.

  2. BB says:

    Entitlement is a dangerous accusation to sling around. Truly there are some situations where the accusation of entitlement is deserving. When it is not, the accusation rings like sour grapes. Group X can’t be happy because Group Y takes for granted what Group X has never had. This argument in its generic form is the logical form of “loser talk”. It commemorates resentment and prepares the undeserving to resent the success of the long suffering when the tables are finally turned (at some unimaginable point in the future). Nevermind any analysis of the actual terms of a relationship between imaginary Group X and imaginary Group Y.

    It’s perfectly natural to say, “I didn’t identify with the characters, I didn’t enjoy the movie.”

    It’s rotten to say, “The people in this movie are self-absorbed ninnies who are so consumed with their own entitlement, as members of Group Y, that they can’t see how obnoxious they are to me, a representing member of Group X.”

    None of that holds up to an honest look at the reasons given why this movie was made by the people who made this movie. And it puts the self-appointed representative of Group X in the vulnerable position of having to defend of every argument they make in the name of Group X.

    You speak for yourself, not your Group. It’s better for everyone that way.

  3. braak says:

    Of all the dangers that people face in this world, being called “entitled” has got to rank somewhere near the very bottom of the list.

    I’m not real worried about the risk involved, but thanks for your input.

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