Richard Linklater is a gifted American filmmaker. His style is naturalistic and unmistakable. His humor as well as his pathos are subtle, indeed, in some instances, nearly imperceptible. Prior to examining his award-winning 2014 film, Boyhood), in detail, it’s worth revisiting his methodology and filmmaking philosophy.
Outside of his mainstream and less characteristic works like School of Rock (2003), more conventional tastes will find Linklater ponderous. Yet, alas, the naturalism and subtlety that mark him out as a distinct filmmaker depend, to an extent, on a more reflective pace. The conventionally minded may also object to his more characteristic films as meandering and plotless. The latter, however, appears to be one of his primary themes: Life is also without a plot and, perhaps even without meaning. In Linklater’s films, this absence of meaning is equally often a source of angst as it is a source of liberation from the likewise pointless duties and pretensions.
Indeed, if there is a consistent theme in Linklater’s work, apparent from his earliest (Slackers)), it is that life merely connects loosely related moments largely outside one’s control. Some fatuously resist this, thereby providing sources of humor, occasional belligerence, and sorrow, whereas others understand this and go with the flow. This is the river of life in all its melancholy beauty, and its navigation is a subtle thing.
Hence, a sort of implicit Buddhism seems to predominate in Linklater’s work. In the very least, one tends to sense in his protagonists a desire to walk barefooted through the meadow of life, so as to harm as little as possible. The unintentionally humorous conspiracy theorists and ridiculous dime-store philosophers appear throughout his film Slackers and make a brief foreshadowing cameo in the partially autobiographical Boyhood. They seem to hint at the madness (to mention nothing of the limited employment) that befalls those, who spend too much effort looking for an overarching order or even a purpose in life. In truth, this is more what the sly Linklater would have you believe. Ultimately, he is a romantic and a conscientious humanist, who shares a genuine and deep love of people, aware of his own imperfections.
Occasionally, Linklater’s dialog—like the sentiment that undergirds his work—also takes on a relatively more serious philosophical dimension. And yet, couched in Linklater’s naturalism, this dimension generally evades feeling stilted or forced. In any case, it remains interesting. This is particularly the case in Linklater’s heartfelt masterpiece Before Sunset (2004). Here, the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the Parisian Celine (Julie Delpy) are would-be lovers, reunited in Paris after a chance meeting long ago depicted in the prequel, Before Sunrise (1995). Among the topics they discuss in their delightful and often-touching conversation are the challenges of modern relationships and the tendency for couples to break up. Celine accurately observes that much of this relates to the economic independence of today’s career women: “Couples are so confused . . . lately . . . men need to feel essential, and they don’t anymore.” This observation is especially poignant in light of Linklater’s latest effort.
Boyhood is a definitive American coming-of-age story. It follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) over 12 years from the age of 6 to 18. (The film was renamed from 12 Years a Boy so as not to confuse it with the similarly titled 12 Years a Slave (2013).) The work highlights many aspects of contemporary living, such as divorce and step-parenting, the generation gap, adolescent drug use, Red State politics, and traditional Southern Christian rural life, to name a few. Overall, despite the subtle approach, the filmmaker seems to recognize that his work depicts what boyhood should not be.
This effect was achieved quite dutifully. Boyhood was actually filmed episodically with the cast over a period of 12 years, with the work finally consolidated into a single film. Thus, the aging of these characters occurs incrementally and seamlessly before our eyes. The setting is Texas, primarily Houston. Patricia Arquette plays Olivia, Mason’s single mother, struggling to make ends meet for her family. Ethan Hawke has the role of Mason Sr., Mason’s charming and loving, though largely absent, biological father. And Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, plays Samantha, Mason’s sister. The plot is, quite simply, Mason’s boyhood and adolescence. Most saliently, however, it is a boyhood that experiences divorce, first, of course, between Mason’s mother and biological father and then between the mother and successive stepfathers. Since characters rather than plot tend to be of greater importance in Linklater films, let us start there.
Mason Sr. is a sort of “slacker.” He is, indeed, not entirely dissimilar in all ways from the characters that populate the earlier Linklater film of the same name. He has never held down a serious job and vainly pursues a music career well after life proves its fruitlessness. A provider he is not. He is, however, a gentle and loving father. Olivia, in contrast, is hardworking and serious, committed, first and foremost, to taking care of her children. She is also loving. In essence, Olivia—though she certainly appears to makes errors in mate selection—is depicted as largely sinless in the divisions that will occur between her and men throughout the film. Yet this sinlessness is understandable, especially in the context of this work, given the limited perspective of a child raised by an intelligent, strong-headed, and convincing single mother. In fact, this is the perspective of the film.
In a sense, the two stepfathers that follow Mason Sr. are a mere repetition of a type. Most broadly and crudely, they are drunk, abusive “authoritarians.” Yet it is important and meaningful repetition that also characterizes a sort of old-fashioned Texan type that, in a way, forms the larger milieu of Boyhood. This type also stands in contrast to the shiftless, yet artistic Mason Sr. and also to Mason, who will grow to more closely resemble his father.
The first stepfather, Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella), is the meanest. He will eventually become physically abusive. Bill is a respected and, apparently, well-compensated senior psychology professor at a local university. Thus, his emergence as a belligerent is relatively surprising. The second, Jim (Brad Hawkins), is a young, returning Iraq war vet. He is ultimately reduced to a low-paying job upon reentry into civilian life and clearly acts out of a sense of impotence. Thus, Jim is more sympathetic by several degrees. There is also no indication that Jim is physically abusive. And yet both stepfathers share the characteristics of being masculine, authoritarian, and traditional and stand in marked contrast to the happy-go-lucky Mason Sr.
Elsewhere, other old-fashioned Texan types appear as peripheral characters, the most memorable being Mason’s photography teacher. In more than one instance, they end up chastising Mason, whom they regard as indolent and disobedient. Their advice is the same: hard work and attention to duty are not merely the key to success, but ultimate virtues per se. In the case of these men outside of Mason’s family, the stakes are lower. And here, one even vaguely perceives humor in their depiction, perhaps, born of a gentle, enlightened condescension on the part of the filmmaker.
But with Mason’s stepfathers, the commentary is darker. These men struggle vainly and impotently for control of their families when, ruled by addiction, they are not even in control of themselves. There is, unfortunately, great credibility in these depictions. Indeed, Linklater does seem to be portraying something that actually exists (rather than merely conjuring the tired scapegoat of the cruel Southern Christian male, which we’ve all become used to). In fact, Linklater’s instinct for subtlety and nuance, to mention nothing of his genuine Texan background, tends to prohibit Coen-esque caricature. Rather, in general, his work skews toward a type of objectivity, however imperfect. Later on, other old-fashioned Texan types appear in his work, both in this film and elsewhere, often as humorous and sympathetic figures. As further proof of Linklater’s objectivity, even Southern Baptism, while depicted plainly in a rural simplicity, is treated gently in Boyhood, with no perceptible hint of malice.
Indeed, Mason Sr. brings Mason and his sister to visit their paternal step-grandparents, who are portrayed as rural and devoutly Christian. There, the children attend church for, perhaps, the first time. The callow siblings look on with incomprehension and, perhaps, even veiled disdain. Yet, if anything, the joke is on them. Instead, the brief scene depicting the sincere preacher is handled in such a carefully uninflected and non-judgmental manner that it could have easily been taken from the unedited rushes of a documentary.
In a subsequent, lovingly-depicted scene, Mason accepts a shotgun as a gift from his paternal step-grandfather. Mason clearly has no interest in rural recreations, including firearms, but he is grateful for the gift, and his good-natured step-grandparents are equally grateful for his presence. Additionally, interviews with the Texas-raised Linklater reveal a clear fondness toward Southern and Texan people—whom he regards as kind and gentle—as well as a certain kind of sadness that they are often mistrusted or disliked by out-of-state liberals. Though to be clear, Linklater is almost certainly himself an earnest liberal, which is borne out in his protagonists.
For instance, Mason Sr. is, predictably, a liberal Democrat, who takes special pains to wean his children in this anti-Red State tradition. In one of the more humorous scenes in the film, Mason, while campaigning for Obama with his father, asks a Texan neighbor if he can plant a campaign sign in his yard. The neighbor, who appears before a confederate flag (which is introduced subtly in the frame), replies with measured indignation: “Do I look like a Barack Hussein Obama supporter?” At first blush, the scene seems like a slip of Linklater’s more subtle hand and, perhaps, belonging more congruously in a Mike Judge film. And yet, upon brief consideration, one sadly realizes just how frequently one encounters such “caricatures” in real life. It is a hilarious send-up of our tragically backward Republican brethren.
Soon thereafter, the mischievous Mason Sr. instructs the children to steal a McCain sign from a neighbor’s lawn. The majority of filmgoers, either liberal or not viewing the film from a political lens, will be undoubtedly swept up in this humorous and irreverent act of petty venality. Indeed, for the time being, we can only be envious of Mason Sr.’s invincibly self-assured political piety. It is, after all, a faith so certain that he actually joyfully sends his children to commit theft to further it. And yet, in fairness, we cannot complain about the cynical position our protagonists’ take vis-à-vis the Iraq War. Mason Sr. assures his children that war
is folly for the peacenik reasons one would suspect. Later, even Jim, the initially charismatic war vet, also, more credibly, indicates his cynicism. Here, “oil” is understood as the cause of this horrific debacle.
And the liberal themes continue. At some point in the film, while Mason is still relatively young, Olivia tells a Mexican contractor, whom she hired, that he is intelligent, and that he should seek schooling to improve his station in life. Years later, the family encounters the bright Mexican managing a restaurant and speaking near-flawless English. He thanks Olivia for her earlier advice. Indeed, it is clear that her one small act of encouragement did, in fact, change his life for the better. The Mexican then buys the family’s meal. Here, it is possible to perceive in Olivia’s muted reaction a trace of longing and envy when she learns of his success.
If only certain men in her life had had the self-overcoming will of this man, who appears to have risen against many more barriers than they might have faced. Likewise, it may even be possible to detect in her a certain humiliated gratitude. The immigrant has bought her family’s lunch, and it is clear at this point in the film that the money saved on even this one meal has significance to her. If only the men in Olivia’s life had a culture and society that did not despise them, nor seek to continually displace, undermine, mislead, cheat, and demoralize them, then maybe that dinner, with a worthy husband by her side, would not have been such a somber occasion. And there are other consequences to Olivia’s particular dilemma.
Mason begins casual drug use in high school, and Olivia is permissive toward it. Indeed, when she understands that her teenage son is arriving later than the barely enforced curfew—both a little drunk and high—there is no punishment, chastisement, or even worry. Instead, there is only a mother’s gratitude in seeing her son safe and sound and her apparent sense of relief that he appears to be using these recreations “responsibly.” And it is true that the fairly intelligent Mason appears to be a moderate type. There is a sense that he is smarter and more able to control these recreations than even the would-be father-figures who intermittently populate his life.
Everything in moderation, Linklater seems to indicate, particularly those ubiquitous things kids will get into anyhow. And likewise, he seems to suggest, nowadays a parent is obligated to navigate these factors more subtly. A parent must do so in order to avoid conflict and, as a result, an even more recalcitrant rebellion—one that may also close down that all-important communication. Indeed, these days it seems that it is all about “damage control”. And truly, these are the dilemmas of parents today, who idealistically insist on an “honest” relationship with their children, so as to, hopefully, receive that honesty back. These dilemmas are especially challenging for single moms.
Olivia, in the absence of a strong, consistent husband, is reduced to a sort of sympathetic friend or peer vis-à-vis her children, negotiating her will rather than commanding it (or having her husband command it). Her loneliness by itself, in between husbands, tends to place her more in the category of her children’s friend and confidant than a bona-fide parent. But of course, children invariably rail for rights not yet deserved and would far prefer to be blissfully unaware of the responsibilities, concerns, doubts, and fears of a parent. Linklater reminisces in his interviews that he never felt the authority of his non-biological fathers to be legitimate and so resisted them almost as an act of principle. He makes it obvious in this film, and so another unfortunate pitfall of divorce emerges. But, of course, whatever our personal situations, and however adversarial the outside culture, we do have to make the best of them.
In a sense, however, with Mason’s moderate drug use, we see genetics prevailing over environment. Here we are reminded of Kevin MacDonald’s discussions of high-investment versus low-investment parenting, and that more intelligent persons better abide by the latter. Indeed, of the male figures in his life, in intelligence, personality, and temperament, Mason is most certainly closest to Mason Sr. This is a testament to Linklater’s uniquely tricky task of casting this film. Like his father, Mason aspires to be an artist (though, in his case, a photographer). Whether it is desirable that Mason turns out like Mason Sr. is another question entirely that seems to answer itself. Yet, however realistically, the strongly autobiographical elements of the film may be interpreted to suggest that Mason’s path is, perhaps, closer to that of Linklater—that is, the rare, talented, and fortunate artist that succeeds. And, perhaps, in succeeding, he deleteriously provides a model and inspiration for those many more, like Mason Sr., who will not.
The film closes as it opens: as a moment, yet hardly a meaningless one, however the filmmaker may prefer to play coy. Mason is getting high in the desert on “chocolate mushrooms” with new college friends. Although he has just met them, he immediately accepts their offer to get high. And until this moment, we have only understood Mason to have used marijuana based on what Linklater has shown us. Hence, it, perhaps, presages a deeper experimentation with drugs.
With the beauty of Texan buttes around them, and with a new Asiatic or Latino (?) love interest by Mason’s side, it is a euphoric, yet deeply sad moment. The latter emotion is, perhaps, less perceptible to most. Indeed, Linklater’s instinct toward “truth” prohibits him from denying the seemingly innocuous, siren-like bliss of drug use. Nevertheless, Mason’s escape into pain assuaging drugs seems to portray one of the consequences of divorce. Indeed, despite Linklater’s refusal to be moralizing, we can be certain that this is no endorsement of American drug culture. Linklater’s Scanner Darkly) (2006), based on the Phillip K. Dick novel of the same title, depicts a whole society addicted and debilitated by a powerful drug. Drug addiction appears to be one of Linklater’s sincere concerns.
Though intended, in part, as a fond paean to a plucky single mother and an imperfect, but loving, biological father, Boyhood is, at its core, a portrait of an American family in decline. And Linklater, to his credit, is at least partially aware of this. In interviews, he remarks that he sees himself, weaned by a single mother, as part of a great societal experiment. He demonstrates an understanding that studies show the desirability of an intact family. (That studies of this nature are even required indicates the incredible waywardness of our society.) And yet, understandably, rightly, and honorably, Linklater feels an instinct to honor his mother and father, whatever their failings or circumstances may be.
Boyhood like Dazed and Confused) (1993), like Petronius’ Satyricon or Miller’s Tropic of Cancer), however different in tone, is a euphoric and subtly melancholic description of decline. And yet more explicitly in Boyhood, Linklater also reminds us of the destructiveness of alcoholism, a vice, which Nietzsche identified in The Anti-Christ as one of the two primary problems facing European man. Critically, Linklater also reminds us of our fault as men. And we should be eager to accept this blame and responsibility. For only with responsibility is there power (at least for us). The world is against us, but let us never forget that this is also originally of our own creation. Hence we are obliged, as only we have the power to do, to destroy it and recreate it to our liking. That a great many of our families have been broken, including the larger family of our race, while tragic as well as inevitable, also means that we are given a pliable clay to reform.
Even the earnest liberal Linklater, however much he admirably loves his family, knows that conditions before us are very far from ideal. Such earnest, conscientious, and intelligent men, growing aware of the essential things of which they were deprived, will have their eyes open for solutions. We must learn to talk to them with a sophistication that they find worthwhile, not like the caustic, barking dinosaurs found in Boyhood. In Christianity, adherents are urged by Christ to become Fishers of Men. We are Fishers as well. However, as any fisherman will tell you, to catch a fish, you must first think like a fish. Perhaps, in some instances, akin to new religious converts, more sensitive souls like Linklater may even become the more zealous advocates of family in the generations to come, including that larger family of race, by which alone the smaller one is secured.
Indeed, we correctly mock that political prostitute and abomination of venality, Hillary Clinton, for her unctuous use of the African aphorism, “It takes a village to raise a family.” However, this is so because, in this context, we understand it correctly as a means of absolving individual Blacks of parenting duties and positing the state, which we fund, as the provisioning “village.” Yet we should also recognize the essential truth of the aphorism, nevertheless. For as much as we understand the importance of genetics, families exist in a larger societal milieu and are very far from immune from its influence. True, the seed may only grow into one thing, yet it needs suitable sun, water, and soil to achieve its true potential. Alas the family is no insular unit. As the Internet and newer forms of mass communication make us ever more connected, we become even more acutely aware of this. Because of this increased “closeness,” there now is no place to run from those who would harm us and our children, whether deliberately or even unwittingly, especially psychologically and spiritually. Rather, we are required to subdue and control these forces.
Fortunately, however, this process has already begun. In the future, we will not allow Hollywood or Washington, at least as they are currently comprised, to play even the slightest role in raising our children. Instead, we will require real fathers at the head of all our nations and their media, to lead and protect the smaller families there within. Good fathers that set an example protect their children, first and foremost.
In this moment, we are in the process of attaining both a sophistication and assured sense of our correctness, one much greater than our liberal contemporaries, whilst retaining the masculinity of the older type. We understand, quite plainly, that the mind and balls need not be riven. Masculinity is not the antipode of sophistication and intelligence, as one sees in Linklater’s contrast of Old Texan and new. Rather, in healthy conditions, it is its closest companion. History has seen these syntheses, most saliently in the Imperial Britton, Imperial Frenchman, Imperial Roman, and even in our American forebears. Indeed, history has only seen these types. This type will appear again, as it invariably does, irritated as if awakening from a slumber, but finally arriving in a fully conscious tranquility. His adversaries, as always, will have little recourse against him.
Boyhood, however touching, is a useful film in helping us realize what boyhood should not be. And Linklater, to his credit, despite the admirable gratitude he shows toward his hapless and imperfect parents, seems largely aware of this.