Magazine | August 11, 2014, Issue

The Real Modern Family

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood (IFC Films)

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an experimental film whose experiment seems at once audacious and so obvious you can’t believe you haven’t seen it tried before. To tell the story of a contemporary Texas childhood, Linklater shot his movie across twelve years, using the same actors throughout and letting his characters actually grow up on camera — the children sprouting and maturing, the parents graying and thickening, time’s arrow flashing by.

There are echoes here of Michael Apted’s famous “Up” documentary series, with its English subjects pinned down every seven years as they moved from childhood into middle age, and of course of Linklater’s own trilogy, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight, with its three snapshots of a love story at once-a-decade intervals. But his new film’s precise blend of fictional content with a documentary’s ruthless realism is something new, and the finished product is remarkable in its enveloping plausibility, its cumulative weight.

It’s also remarkable for offering an unsentimentalized, sometimes brutal portrait of family breakdown in hanging-around-the-middle-class America — depicting not only what divorce and single parenthood and step-parenting can really mean for children, but also how differently family breakdown can be experienced by women and by men. Without being remotely preachy or formally reactionary, Boyhood gives us a vision of the two-parent family’s decline as a deep, far-rippling tragedy — an endurable one, yes, which resilient children can survive and well-meaning parents can mitigate, but one that weaves threads of pain and fear, and the threat of something worse, into the most vulnerable stages of childhood.

The divorce happens before the movie starts: When we meet the six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s child), they’re living with a working mom (Patricia Arquette) whose ex-husband (Ethan Hawke) breezes into town after a long stint in Alaska, plays the “fun dad” for an afternoon, hints that he might want to get back together — and then gets basically chased away by their mom, who’s having none of his overtures.

Based on what we see of him in the early-2000s first act of the movie, it seems like she’s doing the right thing: He’s an underemployed man-child, she’s upwardly mobile and responsible, and the kids are better off seeing him on weekends than having his shiftless self causing constant conflict in the home. But her subsequent personal life is a string of hard-to-watch disasters — a blended-family marriage to her graduate-school professor, who turns out to be an abusive alcoholic; a relationship with an Iraq War veteran who turns out to be a depressive alcoholic — even as she’s carrying all the burdens of parenthood (including the anger of kids shuttled from home to home, father figure to father figure) and her ex-husband gets to have most of the pleasures. Not only that: He gets to have those pleasures twice, because he gets older and wiser and finally settles down, domesticating his shaggy, pot-smoking, Obama-organizing past with a Texan/Christian/Republican wife and a new baby, even as the mother of his first two children sees them leave the nest and faces later middle age alone.

It’s hard to tell how conscious Linklater is of the cultural critique embedded in this narrative. (Probably not very; probably he’s just chasing a story where it wants to go.) In any event, the lack of self-consciousness is one of the movie’s strengths: The story is told through Mason’s eyes — we open on them, staring upward, and then see, without exception, only scenes he sees — and anything remotely didactic would break the spell, rob the film of its wonderful particularity.

What isn’t a strength, unfortunately, is what happens as the family drama recedes and Mason’s adolescence takes center stage. The film’s strongest actors are, in descending order, Hawke, Arquette, the younger Linklater, and Coltrane, and while the boy-turned-teen is quite good — natural and convincing at every stage — he is not quite good enough to lend the last act’s mix of teenage aimlessness, mild relationship trouble, and angsty philosophizing anything like the same weight as the earlier scenes of family turbulence.

As The American Conservative’s Eve Tushnet noted in one of the movie’s few even-slightly-negative reviews, the script makes the teenage Mason a “prototypical good-but-aimless kid” and then has everyone else talk a lot about how talented and swell he is, without ever showing him doing anything very wrong, very good, or very interesting in the scenes that are supposed to carry us out of his boyhood and into whatever’s coming next.

None of this is unrealistic: Plenty of kids pass through high school without hitting any kind of radical decision point, any moment of sudden maturation. But it left me wondering whether Linklater should have chosen a different endpoint for his chronicle, or thought about his framework slightly differently. The movie closes with Mason heading off to college, but one could argue that actual boyhood, American-style, ends either much earlier (with puberty) or much later (with the assumption of real adult responsibilities, rather than the “responsibilities” of college).

That is, depending on your definition, either Mason has stopped being a boy well before the movie’s final scenes, or else his pre-adulthood still has years yet to unspool when Boyhood cuts to black. So, properly speaking, this isn’t really a movie about boyhood giving way to manhood; it’s a movie about the years when family (the true source of drama and interest in the film) matters above all, and it ends at the point when moms and dads, having ceded influence in dribs and drabs, give over their remaining formal powers. Maybe Linklater should have called it “Parents.”

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