Richard Linklater thinks Mason (Coltrane), the protagonist of Boyhood, is a normal kid. And that makes me angry.
Not because he’s a middle class heterosexual white male. I trust somebody else has already written at length about how defining Mason as “normal” is overwhelmingly normative. As a middle class heterosexual white male myself, I don’t really have any particular dog in that fight.
If anything, it’s my proximity to Mason that causes me to be so affected by this film. I can’t remember how many times I exclaimed, “Oh, I’ve been there!” as the story meanders around Texas. Mason’s life story is an eerie interpolation of the life stories of myself and all my High School friends. My dominant emotional response to the movie was recognition. And just behind recognition – anger.
What makes me mad is that Mason’s pathos is, in fact, a representative example of early 21st century Americana. It’s a story of constant displacement and alienation, constant undermining of all social and communal ties, constant betrayal and dereliction by authority figures and caretakers.
Mason’s world is repeatedly uprooted and buffeted by divorce and unwilling relocation with a uniform lack of empathy from any of the adults in his environment. This lack of empathy is highlighted via one of its running themes: the recurrent dispensation of unwanted, unhelpful, clueless advice by adults who have themselves failed at exactly the thing they are giving advice about. The deadbeat dad deigning to toss out a solid sixty seconds of pat advice on sexual behavior and congratulating himself for his trouble. The selfish and aloof mother scolding the daughter for her selfishness and aloofness. The high school teacher advising Mason on how to become a successful artist. The unsuccessful stepdad castigating Mason to be more responsible. This pattern can’t be unintentional.
The movie depicts an utter vacuum of positive role models. Mason is not inspired to become an artist because he admires the life and works of some particular mentor. Rather, he seems to choose photography because it’s the only thing he can do to construct a meaningful reality for himself, to define, both for himself and others, the meaning behind what he observes. Photography serves as a perfect metaphor in this sense. Nobody is helping Mason to frame his reality – nobody is leading him toward what might be a life of purpose and fulfillment. So he chooses an option that lets him (literally) frame reality for himself.
Late in the movie, in an ultimate metaphor for constructing reality, somebody hands him a Bible, but at this point he’s already given up on accepting ontologies from adults. He knows none of the adults around him have ontologies worth replicating.
I would say Mason’s world is totally absent of guidance, but his father does seem to provide a minor touchstone of character. But the moral and ethical framework of Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr. is so underdeveloped that it would be an insult to Hippies to call him one. We find out he’s an Obama supporter. Truly a bold and courageous stance. Mason looks around and the only guy who seems at all happy with his life lives according to the principle of “It’s cool, man, whatever.” So he’s left to make his own meaning.
It’s tempting to say that Mason becomes an artist because his father is an artist. I don’t think that scans. Mason Sr. is a musician by trade, which choice I see as a metaphor for valuing personal enjoyment. Everybody likes music. It’s fun. For Mason Sr., music as a career means a laid back, pleasant lifestyle. Mason Jr. isn’t after enjoyment. I don’t think he’s after hedonism, despite the many scenes where he indulges himself in sex and drugs. This isn’t a story about a kid’s descent into solipsism. It’s the opposite – it’s a story of a boy’s frantic search for meaning. Will this joint, this beer, this ambiguous chocolate-covered psychotropic mean something? This girlfriend? Will this new stepdad be able to offer me some guidance?
The movie lets me down in two ways.
The first is that the movie seems to be saying that Mason’s existential despair is normal and okay. Maybe it is normal in the sense that it’s prevalent in our culture, but I somehow doubt that, for example, Pleistocene-era teenagers were quite this empty. The normal i.e. ancestral outlook is one of tight community and burning mutual purpose. The youngster of 40,000 BC admires and learns from his elders. He grows to fill his role in the hunter-gatherer band. There was an elevated probability of being devoured by a saber-toothed tiger relative to the modern era, but at least a life had meaning on the savanna.
If it is true that we’re evolutionarily wired for community, family, and socially constructed meaning and purpose, then Boyhood highlights all the ways in which our world fails to address these needs in young people, and then fails to point out that this is a bad thing.
The second way in which the movie lets me down is that Mason’s inner drama is so muted. A young person experiences life with vividness and immediacy to which Linklater simply no longer has access or even recollection. At one point, Mason Sr. even essentially says this: “You get older and you don’t feel as much.” Yes, movie, I agree. So shouldn’t Mason be shown to feel more? Frankly, this was one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen. It took me three days to watch, in chunks of forty-five minutes per day, because I kept groaning loudly and leaving the room as we we’re rotated between identical scenes of low-grade familial discontent framed via long car rides, breakfasts around tables, lunches around tables, and dinners around tables, generally filmed in shot-reverse-shot. Yes, I get it, it’s supposed to be boring, just like real life. God, what a depressing mentality.
Fine, shoot a scene at the dinner table. Fine, shoot a scene where practically nothing appears to be happening on the level of plot advancement. But, movie, don’t you know that three words of praise from a mentor can mean more than a winning lottery ticket to a young man? That a conflict with a sibling can feel more tragic and painful than a physical wound, and that the scars can last just as long? A boring family dinner is urgent as life and death. We’re programmed to care deeply, almost pathologically, about kin relationships. We as audiences are primed, aching to feel this specific type of vicarious drama. To fail to invoke these feelings via a film about a boy’s family life is to simply drop the ball.
Tarantino often shoots scenes over a dinner table where the plot barely moves, but you’ll never hear me say nothing is happening in those scenes. Everything is happening in those scenes, but it’s all in the characters’ heads, which we access via empathy. I don’t know whether it’s the script or the acting, but my empathy-o-meter barely wiggled over the whole runtime of Boyhood.
It’s not the fact that Linklater thinks Mason is normal that makes me angry. It’s the fact that Linklater is right, and that he thinks this is an acceptable state of affairs.