A top contender for the 2014 Oscar for Best Picture, Boyhood was filmed over a twelve-year period by director Richard Linklater. The film recollects the life of a boy from age 6 to 18, growing up in the director’s home state of Texas.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the film’s central character; Lorelie Linklater, his sister Samantha; and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, Mason’s parents. Linklater, also the film’s screen writer, has said his approach was collaborative, drawing on his and his actors’ childhoods, especially for the young Ellar Coltrane, who literally grew up during the process of filming.
Boyhood is a magical, entrancing film, but for Christians it should be required viewing for a serious reason: to understand why so many young people in our culture are so wounded, and so, so lost. Who doesn’t belong to or know a broken family like Mason’s — divorced parents who love their kids, but who are incapable of providing them with stability and discipline, much less with the moral compass created by religious conviction.
In Boyhood, the mom raises the kids, while marrying and divorcing two more husbands, both abusive alcoholics. She struggles and succeeds in becoming a college teacher and is able to provide for her children, who are uprooted by several moves. Their dad, driving a GTO, occasionally pops up on weekends. While becoming a more regular part of his kids’ lives, he eventually remarries, settles into an insurance job, has another child and buys a minivan.
Whether intended or not, the achievement of Boyhood is its portrayal of spiritual poverty and its consequences for many of our children. Boyhood captures all the textures and tones of parental failure as well as the emotional displacement, dissonance, and confusion Mason and his sister experience, but without the exculpatory clichés of many TV shows and movies.
Unlike the TV series Parenthood, in its final season on NBC, Boyhood is not allergic to religion. Linklater, a self-identified “Southerner” from East Texas, seems sympathetic to guns and religion, presenting Mason’s world with understanding and without condescension. Even if not part of Mason’s life, church-going is portrayed sincerely. Even more remarkably, there’s no directorial editorializing when Mason receives both a Bible and a gun from his stepmother’s parents.
I’m baffled by the Christian reviewers who sniff at the film’s lack of “morality” in its discrete presentation of Mason’s high school discoveries of pornography, alcohol, marijuana, and sex. As if Christian parents can just circle their wagons and magically shield their children from a toxic culture. As someone who raised a son, I know all about that battle. (On this point, I agree with Barbara Nicolosi in her previous review of Boyhood in The Christian Review.)
Mason, like most young people, hungers for the meaning of life, posed as the closing question of the film. Mason’s father doesn’t know the answer and claims, “neither does anyone else . . . We’re all just winging it . . . . The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.”
Some of these same critics mistakenly condemn Mason’s predictable espousal of his father’s carpe diem philosophy of life in the movie’s last scene as the defining interpretation of Boyhood.
But in this case, the medium is the message: Mason’s statement is that of an 18-year-old boy on the brink of manhood. That’s all. Time and Mason will move on.
As we all know, too many kids grow up like Mason. According to the Pew Foundation only 46% of children under 18 now live in a traditional family of a man and woman who’ve been married only once. A psychotherapist friend says that adolescence can now extend into one’s mid-30’s. This makes the need for the Gospel greater than ever, particularly among teenagers and young adults.
Christians, I think, should pay attention to Boyhood; otherwise the Masons of this world may wander away misunderstood. We have the responsibility of knowing what’s going on in the world. Boyhood can help us recognize the wounded among us: how misled, confused, and cynical they are and how badly they need the grace that can heal all wounds.