Twelve Years in the Life of an American Millennial

Richard Linklater’s creative film, "Boyhood," is a bold experiment in cinematography that fails to address big questions about life and reality

MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: L
Reel Rating: (3 reels out of 5)

Boyhood is a bold experiment in the medium of film, shot in just 39 days but over the course of twelve years, allowing the young protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) to age naturally along with his mother, father, sister, and everyone else. The effect is truly wonderful, creating an unprecedented sense of realism. Director Richard Linklater wanders in and out of Mason’s life at an unhurried pace for nearly three hours, allowing the audience to see the hallmark moments of an entire childhood. Mason becomes an adult—but is he really a man?

This story is not only about Mason but twenty-first century America in its infancy, hitting important cultural landmarks like Forrest Gump but without the chocolates. There’s Saturday morning cartoons, Halo, war in Iraq, and Mason’s father instructing him to steal McCain-Palin signs from unsuspecting conservative lawns. The boy passively observes these events as a stand-in for the audience, rarely engaging the world in any meaningful way or even speaking full sentences until the latter part of the film.

Mason is a spitting image of the Millennial generation, a child of divorced parents living with his single mother and one opposite-sex sibling. His mom complains about money problems yet always seems to have a nice house full of needless knick-knacks. Right from the fopening scene, Mason is introduced to things beyond his maturity level. His sister (Lorelei Linklater), who is eight years older, wakes him up by dancing suggestively to “Oops I did it Again.” He contemplates a dead bird, is bullied in school, discovers pornography, and sits through an extremely awkward conversation about contraception with his sister. He and his mother and sister move constantly. His only relaxing moments come from bi-weekly visits with his father, Mason Sr. (played by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke). They go on camping trips, frequent music venues, and talk about life. “What kind of man do you want to be?” his father asks. Mason isn’t sure, and, while he gets plenty of advice, life doesn’t seem to be giving him any answers.

The primary reason Mason is so rudderless is the poor example of his parents. They are both basically decent people who love their children yet are divorced because, well, they just don’t “fit”. Growing up primarily with his mother, he has to endure two alcoholic stepfathers, one violently abusive. His mother is attracted to men who seem worldly and smart but she gives little thought to their interest and aptitude in parenting, even cooperating with their bad actions. If Mason has no positive models, at least he has plenty of negative ones. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, his own relationships mirror these same failings. Mason falls in love way too quickly and just as quickly breaks up when things get troublesome rather than working out problems.

Early on, Mason shows an intense interest in fantasy, primarily through the Harry Potter series. Late one night, he asks his father if magic exists. “Well, I don’t know about magic, but what about the blue whale? What if I told you there was a giant sea creature that had a heart the size of a car? You would think that was magical,” he father grins. Mason isn’t convinced.

“So there are no elves and stuff?” “No,” his father replies. “There are no elves.” This is about as close Boyhood comes to a genuine conversation about religion; the disappointment Mason feels resounds through his generation. As Peter Kreeft observes, “we have traded the wine of the gospel for the water of psychobabble.” It’s difficult for Catholics to imagine a childhood devoid of religion, but this is reality for many kids.

After several years, Mason Sr. marries a wonderful woman from the deep South. On his sixteenth birthday, Mason’s new stepgrandparents give him a red-letter Bible, a Sunday suit, and the family shotgun. Mason’s father and the director treat them respectfully but with typical leftist amusement. Despite this, they are the only normal and happy couple in the whole film, having found the meaning of life that eludes everyone else.

The great tragedy of Boyhood will not be noticed by most—Mason seems to have a religious vocation. In high school, he finds his passion in photography. He is deeply empathic and sensitive, observing life with awe and admiration, and loves spiritual matters, wanting to find the deepest answers of life. Yet no one has given him a language or path to pursue this need. Hopefully, Mason will one day open that dusty Bible and find his true calling.

Many times throughout the film, important questions are raised but few are ever really explored. Mason is a smart kid but is not driven to do much of anything. He finally concludes that life simply happens; a person just deals with it as best he can. But what do the events in a childhood mean? How do they shape him? Is he now the man he is meant to be? He isn’t sure and neither is the film.

Despite the general murkiness, Boyhood is a very compelling story told in a creative, sometimes amazing, manner. This is, after all, just one snippet in Mason’s life. His journey continues and maybe one day it will all make sense.

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About Nick Olszyk 198 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".