I missed Richard Linklater’s Boyhood when it was first released: our multiplex doesn’t show many non-blockbusters, or it shows them fleetingly and at odd times, so it’s a case of blink and you miss it. But last night, thanks to our excellent local film society, I finally got to see the film. This is not the place for a full review, and others have expressed more articulately than I can what’s so good about this bold, absorbing and deeply humanist film. But I wanted to share a few initial reflections on Boyhood‘s portrayal of masculinity, though again I’m not sure my insights will be particularly original, as a number of reviewers have already considered this aspect of the movie, and especially how it intersects with issues of class and ethnicity.
As others have said, Linklater’s film is as much about fatherhood, motherhood, and even brotherhood and sisterhood, as it is about boyhood. As those who have seen the film will be aware, Boyhood is the story of a modern American boy, Mason junior, from the age of about six to the moment he leaves home at the age of eighteen: the remarkable thing being that the film was shot in real time, over a period of twelve years, so that we witness the actual physical ageing process in both children and adults. But it’s also the story of Mason’s sister, Samantha, and his mother, played by the deservedly Oscar-winning Patricia Arquette.
In terms of the film’s treatment of fatherhood, it has to be said that (at least on a superficial viewing) men don’t come out of it particularly well. At the beginning of the film the children’s biological father, played superbly by Ethan Hawke, is presented as an immature and mostly absent boy-man who has left their mother with the responsibility of bringing up the kids, reappearing every now and then to take them off for ‘fun’ weekends. So far, so stereotypical.
As the film unfolds, we see Arquette’s character form relationships with two other men who become substitute fathers for Mason junior and Samantha. Rather repetitiously, both are revealed as, to varying degrees, drunks. Interestingly, both men present on the surface as paragons of responsible masculinity: the first, a middle-aged college professor who is singlehandedly raising two children of his own, and the second a younger army veteran whose experience of combat is at least superficially a badge of mature masculinity. But both are revealed as damaged men and therefore unable to act as adequate father figures to Mason junior. We see this only fleetingly in one scene with the second man, before he disappears from the family and the film, but spectacularly in the case of the first, whose alcoholism leads to controlling and then explosively abusive behaviour.
While all of this is going on, we witness a slow transformation in Ethan Hawke’s character, Mason senior. Incidentally, that shared name seems to me an endorsement of a sense that this is, in fact, the central relationship of the film, and the one that finally absorbs most of our interest and attention. Maybe this is because of Hawke’s performance, or maybe because the director is a man, or maybe it’s simply because I was watching it as a man, and as a father. We see Hawke’s character evolve over time to become more ‘adult’ and responsible, but crucially without losing any of the energy and likeability of his younger self. Mason senior studies accountancy, gets a proper job, meets a new partner from a conservative Christian background, has a child with her – but without ever letting go of a kind of expressive and playful masculinity, symbolised partly in his enduring love for rock music (the film has a superb soundtrack). For me, the scenes between him and his growing children – scenes of disappointment, embarrasment and momentary joy – are some of the most engaging and memorable in the film. What Mason senior seems to represent is, not so much the stereotypically irresponsible manhood that appeared to characterise him at the outset, as a kind of open and fluid masculinity that is able to adapt and conform to the adult world without losing its own identity.
On one level, it seemed to me that the film was exploring and problematising the notions of ‘absence’ and ‘presence’ that characterise some of the debates around contemporary fatherhood. To put it crudely (and the film is too complex to be reduced to crude dichotomies), one could argue that the two substitute fathers are physically present in the children’s lives but emotionally absent, and indeed emotionally hobbled, while the biological father is for the most part physically absent, but at least emotionally engaged and trying, if not always successfully, to express genuine feelings and to make the relationship with his children work.
I think director Richard Linklater is probably more drawn to this character and these relationships than he is to the mother and her connection to the children. To be sure, the mother is a powerful, consistent presence in the film, and there is certainly no moralising judgement of her parenting, or of her unfortunate choice of partners. When Mason senior tells her towards the end of the film, ‘You did a good job’, it’s an assessment we want wholeheartedly to endorse.
At the end of the day the film offers no simple dichotomies between stolid, responsible mum and ‘fun’ but irresponsible dad. It’s much more complicated than that, and in fact the film itself is endlessly reflexive about these very issues, making them the subject of countless conversations between the characters. It’s this complexity and ambiguity that makes Boyhood a landmark film about families, intimate relationships – and masculinity. It’s a tribute to its many-layered quality that I’ll know I want to watch the film again, and to revisit these reflections – and who knows, maybe have second thoughts about the way it deals with these issues.