Notes on Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is certainly the best movie I’ve seen this year, likely the best movie I’ll see this year.  But I don’t see a lot of movies.  After the spoiler bar, some notes on this one.  I meant to write this right after I saw it, but got busy, so no doubt I’ve forgotten some of what I meant to say and gotten other things wrong.

Here’s one thing I liked about this movie.  Every adult man in the movie talks to Mason about responsibility.  Following up.  Thinking about consequences of actions.  It’s the verbal glue that holds all the men in the movie together.

But here’s the thing.  Responsibility is a virtue, sure.  But it turns out that good men and bad men believe in it just the same.  You can’t tell who’s good by what they say.  Mason’s abusive alcoholic stepdad tells him to live up to the commitments he makes.  That’s good advice.  Mason’s photography teacher, presented as someone who basically cares about him and means him well, tells him he can’t just do what he pleases if he wants to make art; he has to apply himself and learn technique.  Also good advice.  Not-necessarily-alcohol-abusing-but-drunk-and-checked-out stepdad #2 tells him he should call his mother if he’s going to be out all night because she worries.  Also good advice!  The manager at the cruddy restaurant where Mason works tells him he shouldn’t screw around chatting in the back when there are families waiting for their food.  That’s good advice too!  And the movie cleverly sets up the manager as a figure of fun (giving him a dorky polo shirt and a receding hairline) but then brings him back, in a sympathetic role, at Mason’s party, forcing the audience to say, yeah, the dorky guy was right, big ups for the dorky guy.  Ethan Hawke’s second wife’s dad (following me here?) works similarly; the movie sets you up to see his gift of a gun to Mason as a piece of yokelism, but Mason visibly appreciates it, and what is the older man’s main piece of dialogue in the scene?  A reminder that a gun is a serious thing and you have to use it with safety foremost in your mind.  Great advice.

Responsibility talk isn’t really about being a good man or a bad man; it’s just about being a man.  Mason’s biological father gives him a talk about birth control (at this point, Mason is about 13, and hasn’t had a girlfriend yet, I think) which is a fine model of the “This is serious, but I’m gonna be funny, but also, remember, I’m serious” approach.  I’m sure a lot of dads of younger kids were taking notes.

But of course the context of this talk is that Mason Sr. himself didn’t use birth control, whence Mason!  Who he then — contra all the responsibility talk — ran out on, before the movie even starts.

So it’s unfair, right, that I’m giving him credit for this speech?  And for that matter, isn’t it unfair and kind of creepily patriarchal that I’m casting responsibility as part of being a man, as opposed to part of being an adult?

So the movie is working exactly to bring that into the light and then oppose it, I think.  Because who actually lives up to commitments and acts responsible is Mason’s mother.  He hears about responsibility from his dad, and every other man in the world.  But he learns it from his mom.



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4 thoughts on “Notes on Boyhood

  1. Tom says:

    I loved Boyhood, and I like your take on it, but I think the relationship between idealized notions of “masculinity” and “responsibility” both in the film and in American culture generally are more complicated than you are acknowledging here. In particular, in the scene where Ethan Hawke is talking to Mason about how with his new baby he is now more able to be the kind of responsible parent that you note that Mason’s mom is, the adjective he uses is not “responsible”, but rather “castrated.”

  2. gowers says:

    I loved Boyhood too. I think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, though in a way that’s a misleading thing to say, since what it is trying to do is so unlike what pretty well any other film tries to do. But it’s one of the best somethings I’ve ever seen. I saw it with my 21-year-old son …

  3. JSE says:

    I wonder if my love for this movie is related to my love for the best movie I’VE ever seen, the “Up” series (which in my view is a single very long work.) There are obvious superficial similarities. I think “Up” is much darker (and not just because the characters get older; even 21 Up is dark in its way.)

  4. AR says:

    Great take on a really awesome movie :) You could further say that since Mason Sr. has his own biological kid to raise at the end of the movie, he’s just arriving at the point that Mason’s mother was at 15 years ago. Or equivalently, Mason’s mother is 15 years older than she actually is because of the life she’s led for so long — the ending gives some insight into her thoughts on the finiteness of her own life in the scene with the photograph.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the Before series, but the night Mason Jr. spends in Austin with his girlfriend seems like a direct homage to Before Sunrise. I rather enjoyed that.

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