When I sat down to watch Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” I was expecting, child of the ’50s that I am, to witness the trials of a boy growing up in an Ozzie-and-Harriet, Ward-and-June-Cleaver two-parent family. These trials are real enough, as people of my generation can testify: In our day, the economic dependence of women and the rigors of divorce and alimony preserved many a marriage, and many a family with vulnerable children, that should for everyone’s benefit have been broken up.
I was misled by hearing that Mason, the boy of “Boyhood,” grows up to be a decent human being with decent prospects, and by my assumption that this kind of human being is best produced in a stable two-parent family, like the one I grew up in. To my surprise, Mason’s parents were divorced before the story begins. Mason Sr. is in Alaska, taking some time for himself (although his ex, left with two children to support and raise, is the one who really needs a break).
Mason’s beleaguered mother is attracted to abusive drunks, one of whom she marries and later divorces. Men move in and out of the children’s lives: Mason Sr. returns and plays the role of weekend dad for several years until Mom and the kids move to a faraway town, when he becomes a summer and vacation dad. During his children’s teenage years, Mason Sr. remarries and introduces a baby half-brother into Mason and his sister Samantha’s lives. Mason’s mother moves the family from one house to another, at one point moving in with a friend after she leaves her drunken husband. After yet another move (“Are we moving again?” Samantha cries) she literally pushes her daughter out of the car toward the door of her new middle school and drives off to take Mason to his new school.
Despite this unending flux of people and circumstances, Mason and Sam grow up to be reasonably intact and functional human beings. They are able to do this because of the high quality of the parenting they receive. Olivia, their mother, is affectionate and nurturing, outraged and frustrated, caressing and shouting in almost equal measures, conducting her children, often by pushing and dragging them, along the way they should go. She is their constant presence in changing circumstances, a heroic figure, a kind of dramatic summing-up of the single mothers I have known.
Moreover, the children’s father, after his “break” in Alaska, is a reliable presence in his children’s lives. He’s also an effective presence: In a wonderful scene in the car, where so much parent-child communication takes place, Mason Sr. insists that he will not be a good-time “Disneyland” dad but a real father because his children will really talk to him, really and honestly tell him about their lives. Sam replies that he must tell them about his life, too, and he agrees, and dad and kids establish and later maintain the reciprocity that every healthy parent-child relationship requires.
Although these transactions are fictional, they are made totally believable by Linklater’s script and by the actors he has cast and directed: Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke both deserve best supporting actor Oscars for their performances. Arquette’s moving “my life is over” lament when Mason leaves for college is a cry that most parents will recognize: If you do your job as a parent, you do yourself out of a job because you have transformed a dependent child into a strong and independent adult, able to make his own way in the world.
Yet it is Olivia’s life as a parent that is over, which she will probably realize when Mason has been gone for a few weeks and she has begun to discover and to live her life apart from her children. Her feeling that her life is over is the feeling of the moment. Time will pass, and she will have other feelings, and meet new friends and affirm old ones, and maybe even connect with a man who is not a drunken jerk. The passage of time and the complex texture of human experience are presented more convincingly in this movie than in any other I can remember.
Again and again the friends with whom I watched the movie and I, veteran parents all, laughed or remarked at some figure or gesture or incident that we recognized. I sympathized with Mason as one adult after another upbraids him for some infraction of rules or his failure to “take responsibility” or “realize his potential.” “Leave the poor kid alone,” I shouted at one point; yet I remembered that my own daughters’ theme song during their adolescence was Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” and that my live-in grandson rolls his eyes at what he calls “the usual five-minute lecture” that accompanies most of my communications with him. We love, we lecture; we are lectured, we obey, we rebel, we love. Life goes on.
All this true and beautiful action takes place in a world that is vastly different from the world my friends and I grew up in, and yet it is somehow the same world. Sam and Mason use drugs other than alcohol, they have sexual intercourse with the people they’re dating and the circumstances of their upbringing are much more fluid (shall we say?) than were mine; yet their characters and their prospects seem at movie’s end to be at least as good as mine were and are. This may be the most important truth to be taken from “Boyhood’s” compelling image of our lives: Samantha’s and Mason’s strong humanity endures time and change. It may even prevail.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.