So says Mason’s mother near the end of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. She implores him to take a picture with him to school—the first picture the aspiring photographer ever took. He doesn’t want it, though, and she breaks down in tears. She’s trying to process 18 years worth of motherhood and memories, ticking off the milestones one by one: Marriage. Divorce. New careers. New experiences. And she sits there wondering if they mean anything. Anything at all.
“I just thought there would be more,” she says. And she speaks for millions of mothers. Maybe she speaks, in a way, for all of us.
Boyhood, a leading contender for a Best Picture Oscar, is a haunting, multifaceted movie filmed over a dozen years. It’s a frustrating flick in some ways because it doesn’t really have a story arc to it: We witness potato-chip-thin slices of Mason’s life, from the time he’s an inquisitive 6-year-old to when he’s a pontificating man-boy on his way to the adult world. The moments of his life aren’t threads in a tapestry as much as they are spatters in a Jackson Pollack painting: Each helps to form the whole of whom Mason becomes—and yet there’s no real intentionality here, no pattern in play. The movie doesn’t feel like a story. It feels like life, with all the mysteries and frustrations that life comes with.
Stories make sense. You may not like how some stories end, but you can typically see how they got there. Life isn’t always so easy to figure out. Most of us don’t end our personal earthly narratives as hero or villain. No credits roll, no dramatic music plays. We’re simply … done. It seems so anticlimactic. And I think most of us, at some point, wonder what we’re supposed to be doing here. Wondering whether there should be more, or if we’re just doing it wrong.
Boyhood is a cinematic Ecclesiastes.
When I first read the Bible, these words shocked me. Do people know actually know this is in here? I remember thinking. It felt paradoxically un-scriptural—like the sorts of things we Christians are specifically told not to think. We’re taught from the very earliest days of Sunday school that everything has meaning, right? We’re special. God has a plan.
I believe all that to be true. But Ecclesiastes recognizes that we’re not privy to that plan—and that a lot of the things that we prioritize aren’t really that important. We long for that one thing that’ll make our life better—but when we finally achieve it, we’re not so much different than we were. Boyhood, poignantly and sometimes beautifully, carries us through repeated, and at times familiar, arcs of hope and disappointment.
Mason’s dad wanted to be a musician … but then he takes a job to pay the bills. He encourages Mason and his sister to plaster campaign signs for Barack Obama—a man promising great hope and change but who, many would argue, fell short of those lofty expectations. He takes the kids to a baseball game to see the legendary Roger Clemens pitch—exhorting them to remember this moment, seeing one of the all-time greats in action. Not so long after that game, Clemens’ sure-fire trip to the Hall of Fame was wiped away through allegations of steroid use, his very reputation blown away by the wind.
Mason’s mother cascades through a slew of relationships. They seemed so promising at the beginning, but each one proved to be a disappointment, falling victim to booze and anger. And even though she realizes her career ambitions and becomes an excellent college teacher, she wistfully admits it wasn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. As John Steinbeck writes, “There’s a capacity for appetite that a whole heaven and earth of cake can’t satisfy.”
It all mirrors what we hear in Ecclesiastes, as our Teacher debunks finding purpose in wealth or pleasure or even wisdom. In the end, it is all meaningless, he insists. Our past will be unremembered. Our bravest plans are inconsequential. No earthly pursuits can satisfy our appetites. We are not made to be sated.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
I just thought there would be more.
Even Mason himself feels the weight of Ecclesiastes pressing down on him. “Dad, there’s no real magic in the world, right?” he asks his father when he’s about 10.
His dad encourages Mason to think about magic differently: “What if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean, there was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs and was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries?” Dad says. “I mean, you’d think that was pretty magical, right?”
But Mason seems unconvinced. Growing up strips away the magic, myth by myth.
It doesn’t stop him from believing, though. That perhaps he might find at least a friend in his mother’s parade of boyfriends. Or that he become a great photographer without putting in the time. Or that he and his high school sweetheart might live happily ever after. The stories he tells himself end in disappointment.
And yet, all is not sadness. Even as plans are thwarted and desires misdirected, there is joy and contentment to be found. Perhaps Mason’s mom thought her career would be “more.” But there’s satisfaction in doing a job and doing it well. Maybe Mason’s dad never became the musician he wanted to be, but he found love, and family, and a second chance. Both of Mason’s parents grew up just as much as Mason did. And Mason—he’s on the cusp of adulthood, with all the promise it brings. And at least when the movie ends, he’s able to (with a little help) live in the moment, as God would like us all to do.
“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil,” the teacher tells us in Ecclesiastes. “This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
Honest work. Family and friends. Enjoying each moment that’s been given to you. These are the things that God likes us to value. And it’s those values that Boyhood, in its own imperfect, problematic way, celebrates.
“You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment?” a new friend of Mason’s tells him at the very end of the movie. “I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”
The moments do seize us, if we allow it. When we’re able to live in the present—when we are in that rare frame of mind to appreciate the gifts that God has given us in that moment—our regrets of the past and hopes and fears for the future fade into meaninglessness. We’re not looking for the “so much more” that Mason’s mom pines for. We see the glories of the instant—and those glories, in that moment, fill a lifetime.