Time Is Like a Dream/And Now–For a Time–You Are Mine: A Few More Thoughts on “Boyhood”

So when I wrote my review of Boyhood I knew it had gotten good press, but I didn’t realize that I would be one of only a handful of critics who found the movie lacking. Apparently it sits around 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Now that I’ve had some time to sit with the movie in my memory, here are some further thoughts: some extra praise and some extra criticism, but mostly a reflection on perseverance.

The other critics who disliked Boyhood tend to argue that the “film these people over 12 real years as the real children really grow” method is a gimmick. This criticism is wrong. Boyhood is a portrayal of a life nothing sticks to. It’s a depiction of the way relationships and experiences which feel intense and life-defining in the moment can actually drift away from us and leave us unchanged–not everything leaves scars. That’s true sometimes and tough, and it could be sad, depending on how it’s handled. Because the movie so consistently leaves characters and situations behind (the violent stepfamily, whose children we never hear about again, may be the most striking example), the things they can’t leave behind become all the more important. The fact that the actors are the same people reinforces the sense, within the film, that the flesh is inescapable: The only family ties which last (in the movie) are the biological bonds between parents and children, not the chosen bonds of stepparenting or marriage.

It turns out that a life where nothing sticks and nothing scars is really boring. I already criticized the adolescent Mason Jr’s blah okayness, his moral lukewarmth, but here I want to focus on a different reason I found him no fun to watch.

People change because we stay in place. We change because of the consequences; because of the relationships we can’t or won’t escape. Mason Sr grew in interest and poignancy as the movie went on because he stuck around and changed. (The scenes with his own parents, where we can see how close he still remains to their worldview–his somewhat guilty, somewhat defiant complicity and belonging, in that gun-and-Bible world–are primary-colors and yet genuinely moving.) Mason Jr’s mother grows to a certain extent because she grapples with the consequences of her choices, and because she sticks with her children. Mason Jr, by contrast, is like the thing I said here, “Loving forty people in forty years is having roughly the same experience forty times. Loving one person for forty years is not.”

It would be possible to make a fairly tragic movie about a kid nothing sticks to. But Boyhood doesn’t want tragedy; it wants Teflon-skinned Mason Jr to seem totally normal and okay. That’s part of what completely did not work for me in the movie. Nobody is that okay! Nobody is that lukewarm and surface-level. I’ve met kittens who sin more than Mason Jr, and down pillows who suffer more convincingly.

It could be that some of the problem is just Mason’s age when the movie stops. College is an especially surface-level, image-obsessed, callow stage of life. If the movie followed Mason Jr even a few years out of college the bills would inevitably start coming due, and we would see either change or the horrifying results of unwillingness to change.

But my impression is that Linklater made the movie he wanted to make. The fact that 18-year-old Mason’s soul is inhumanly unsullied suggests that drifting rather than sticking is what the movie is about. You can understand why he drifts: a lot of the advice the adults in his life give him is not that great, nor are their examples necessarily appealing, and they drift themselves much more than they stick. Unfortunately, the movie illustrates why drifting is (among other things) less interesting than sticking. I think maybe Ayelet Waldman said–please tell me if you remember what I’m thinking of–that drama comes from getting a character into a situation he can’t just get out of.

I’ve written exhaustively before about my desire to read books which are just epilogues–just Raskolnikov in the aftermath, just the living-with-it. I don’t argue that these would be the most dramatic books. I get that books build toward a climax for a reason. But man, Boyhood is like the mirror image of the thing I want: It’s a movie which postpones and undermines every possible build toward every possible climax. There’s a caution there which I guess I do associate with Millennials, but what Linklater portrays goes way beyond cultural critique into a kind of existential rejection of commitment or memory.

This weekend I’m going to a debate on the topic “Resolved: Eat the Apple.” No idea what I’ll say, but you know, we all eat the apple eventually. Better to eat one apple all the way to the core than just take mincing little bites out of ten apples and throw them away. Make your mistakes and stick around for them. If you make your bed, at least get the benefits of lying in it.

About Eve Tushnet

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