Words Are Stupid and All of Time Is Standing Here Before Us: On “Boyhood”




IN HIGH SCHOOL, my best friend and I had secret codes, like all other best friends in all other high schools. In the notes we passed to one another — small handfuls of notes in an ocean of triangularly folded missives palm-to-palmed and slipped into countless locker grates — we went by the names of Sailor Moon characters, our crushes half-hidden beneath similarly concocted pseudonyms. And we had a catchphrase, one that was important enough to us that it didn’t seem stupid by the end of senior year and thus made it onto our little individualized yearbook pages. “Dammit,” we wrote, said, whispered between fits of giggles, “Dammit, we can’t save everyone.”

The phrase has a backstory involving spinning nickels and the second floor of a ski lodge that is literally only funny or interesting to the two of us and this is of course by definition, as the whole purpose of in-jokes is to proclaim the small-group proprietary nature of memory to the poor sods in your general vicinity. But we are, in turn, each of us poor sods: no one is without their own version of precisely what I’ve described, be it the notes or the names or the artless dodging of love-objects in the halls. We like to think that growing up consists of the experiences that turn us into individualized people, that give us the arsenal of experiences and memories and acts of language that differentiate us from everyone around us. And that’s true. The thing with the nickels and the ski lodge is probably unique to my friend and me, excluding parallel universes. But it’s also desperately, hopelessly untrue, as anyone who has either given serious thought to sociocultural structures or spent time in a fraternity house can affirm: we are as much individuals as we are programmed automatons, and the passage of time somehow, impossibly, manages to exacerbate both conditions.[1]

It’s this contradictory state of affairs that lies at the heart of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s most recent and possibly already most famous filmic endeavor. Boyhood has been lauded almost without condition by every major news outlet in the United States at this point, and it’s easy to see why: the project ticks a whole host of This Is A Serious Film boxes, from its concept (film using the same cast over the course of 12 years, thus never having to break the illusion that the boy growing up in the film is actually a boy growing up) to its execution (sensitive but witty, dramatic but not melo-). Boyhood tells the story of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) and his family as they move around Linklater’s home state of Texas. That’s more or less it. Over the course of the film, Mason — and thus Coltrane — ages from 6 to 18. The last moments of the film see him off to Sul Ross State University. Everyone else ages too: his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), his semi-absentee father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). But the focus of the film remains firmly trained on Mason, and it’s his changing face and body that elicits the gasps and giggles of the audience every time one of Linklater’s understated cuts eases the story ahead a year or two. The effect is compelling and delightful in a way that is reminiscent of flipping through old yearbooks minus the psychic trauma, though of course Mason suffers a fair amount of that himself: his dad moves in and out of his life like a traveling circus, he changes schools frequently, gets bad haircuts, watches his mother endure relationships with men in varying stages of alcoholism.

In short, he suffers through the kind of stuff that is only vaguely noteworthy, and he acts in accordance: Mason, as a character, is remarkably flat. He progresses from a daydream-prone kid thinking about wasps to a daydream-prone young adult spending too much time in the school’s darkroom. He reacts to everything with a kind of disaffectedness that is nearly a parody of itself. He barely blinks, for example, when his mother’s abusive second husband smashes a bottle onto the floor during dinner. The only time he really raises his voice is in one of the very first scenes of the movie, in which his sister rouses him from sleep with a pillow to the head and an impromptu dance rendition of Britney Spears’s “Oops!… I Did It Again.” “MOOOMMMMMMMM!!” Mason screams, before throwing the pillow off of the top bunk. It’s a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the absurdity that is having two young children [full disclosure: I do not have two young children], and it’s about as riled up as Mason will get for the next two and a half hours.

For the rest of the film, he broods in a mild way, exhibiting signs of maturity that far outstrip his age. This is particularly evident during his eighth-grade year, a time during which the combination of puberty and being in a new school district would have made the vast majority of boys his age total train wrecks of either pseudo-hypermasculinity or punishing shyness. Mason is, by contrast, the model of an even keel: while walking through town after school, he’s accompanied by a girl on a bike whom we’ll not see again. She’s blond, and pretty, and chatty. She asks him if he’s going to come to a party, invites to which have been making the rounds. He replies: “I don’t know.” She pushes him: “You should come.” He replies, weirdly: “And why’s that?”

It’s weird because eighth graders do not usually interrogate clear opportunities for social advancement. And it’s weird retrospectively, because his thoughtful inquiry is almost no different from the thoughtful inquiries he’ll continue to make throughout high school, as he rolls his eyes at the football team and concocts theories about social media. Later that evening, he’s invited to hang out with some friends at a half-finished house nearby. One of the friends’ older brothers, a senior, is there with a friend of his own. There’s beer, and the seniors are also parodies of themselves, in a beefed-up Beavis and Butt-head kind of way. In one of the movie’s more harrowing moments, they all take turns throwing the blade of a circular saw at a plank of wood, burying it inches deep and prying it out again. But of course nothing happens: it’s one of the rare moments when the film shows all of its cards, inviting you to think that it thinks you’ll think that it’s not the kind of movie that it obviously is. This is not the kind of movie, in other words, in which anyone’s hand gets lopped off on screen. They move to a discussion about banging chicks. Mason fakes it calmly, answering “yeah, a few times” when asked if he’d ever done it. They don’t believe him, prompting Mason to put on a half smile, glance into his more or less untouched beer, and say: “you know, I don’t care what you assholes think.” Mason the character is almost a better actor than Ellar the actor, and if Boyhood is about growing up, most of the growing ends here.

But then, Boyhood isn’t about growing up. Not exactly. It can’t be, because no one in it really grows up at all, save Mason Sr., who suddenly trades in his GTO for a minivan and a laughably rural, Christian family. (For his 15th birthday, Mason receives a gun and a Bible from his new step-grandparents.) The growing up of elder Mason is also parodic, in other words, and it also doesn’t totally stick: the last scene involving Ethan Hawke’s sensitively portrayed character brings him back to the bar with his old band buddy, the latter having made good on a career in music and playing one last song for younger Mason before he heads off, UT-bound, into the sunset. Boyhood, as it turns out, is about the way in which time stagnates as it progresses — the fact that no one, in real life, really grows up either.[2]

When we expect something to be “about” maturation, what we expect is a story of marked transformation: the Bildungsroman punctuated by falling in hopeless love at first sight, or by some crisis of conscience that sets one off on a different life course than one could have ever expected. This, from Goethe to Clueless, is the stuff of everyone’s-an-exceptionalist fantasies, and it makes for gripping works of fiction on page, stage, and screen. But it’s gripping because most people don’t fall suicidally in love, and most airheaded blondes don’t wind up at top-tier law schools. Nearly every critic to have put fingers to keyboard regarding Boyhood has praised the film’s startling realism, without seeming to realize how abstract that realism is, how completely absurd the narrative suddenly becomes (e.g., GTO to minivan) when a stereotypical “growing up” story is thrown into it. This is the most generous possible explanation for how the tiny subplot in which Mason’s pale blond mother literally inspires a Mexican kid working on her house to go back to school and then he finds her at a restaurant and says, “I’m the manager of this restaurant and believe it or not you changed my life” made it past more than one round of editing. What makes the film uncanny is not the way in which its characters or even its plot mirrors the real, but rather how precise a metaphor it manages to be for realism itself. Its conceit, in which the passage of time isn’t faked, is the engine that drives the car, but its chassis is the relative stagnation of its characters. The car stays the same shape no matter how fast you drive it. One of the most bizarre aspects of the film is the way in which it sometimes seems as if they’d taken Ellar Coltrane and just thrown him into a movie that was written with all of the parts but his already completed: Mason learns to be a bit of a cliché by being surrounded by characters that are clichés, even as his own clichés differ from all of those around him. “You know, you’re kinda weird,” he’s told in high school by a pretty, preppy young woman who would later, improbably, become his girlfriend. “Is that a compliment?” he asks. “I dunno,” she replies, “do you want to be weird?”

This same young woman, much more probably, winds up dumping the be-earringed, nail polished Mason for a college lacrosse player. “He’s not a jock,” she insists to him, “he just happens to be on the lacrosse team.” It’s a laugh line, but she’s not kidding — she is trying in earnest in that moment to separate individuality from collectivity, to insist that the force of our personalities can override the circumstances in which we find ourselves, by choice or otherwise. And although she sounds oblivious when she says it, Mason is attempting much the same kind of feat, shuttering himself away in the school’s darkroom as his photography instructor lobs such scintillatingly original bits of advice at him as “you’ve got a lot of natural talent, but that and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee in this cold world.” Mason doesn’t care about coffee. Mason just wants to make art … just like all other artists his age. “I don’t like to vocalize my thoughts,” he says at one point. “Words are stupid.” Besides being a sly commentary on the strange duality of filmmaking — a medium that relies as much on words as it does on not-words — the line draws our attention to the way in which acts of language transform our thoughts into something communicable and thus, by a basic necessity, into something no longer unique. Cogito, ergo sum, but I speak, therefore I become like other people.

As Mason navigates his world with more and more words, the pressure of time upon language increases proportionally, until it collapses in the film’s most important scene. It’s not the last scene, which is kind of wonderfully hackneyed and involves a (surprise!) stoned Mason hanging out at Big Bend with his new college dorm mates, one of whom muses that maybe it’s not us who seize moments, but rather that moments seize us. Instead, it’s the second to last scene, involving only Mason and his mother. She’s single again, and has downsized into a small apartment in preparation for an empty nest. He’s telling her about his new roommate, who’s an English major. She says something to the effect of “it sounds like you’ll have a lot in common,” which prompts Mason to detail the way in which college roommates are matched with each other. It’s a complicated algorithm, he explains, but it’s not because people are complicated. “There are only like eight kinds of people in the world,” he says. “It turns out we’re not as unique as we think we are.” A minute or two later, the scene ends with Olivia sobbing at the table. She scrabbles around for some words, and what comes out is “this is the worst day of my life.”

What makes it the worst day of her life has little to do with the day in question, and much more with the series of days that have led up to this point, a fact of which she is aware. Boyhood is a profoundly touching, funny film, and bears re-watching for reasons that are almost impossible to describe. But its real genius lies not in how much it fills us up with a sense of ourselves, but how queerly empty it leaves us. “I just thought there would be more,” Olivia says. It is her last line. We don’t need anything more from this film, which has both given us plenty and taken plenty away, which has drowned us in the unreality of realism. But as we file out of the theater, we fill the air with words, trying in our feeble ways to explain why we were moved. It is, perhaps, not all the more we need, but it is all the more we have, and if Boyhood makes us spend a few more minutes grappling with the ways in which time presses us all closer together, maybe it allows us to regress as well, back to when every sentimental cliché felt like the beginning and the end of the world.

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[1] In a masterful stroke of musical accompaniment, the soundtrack encapsulates this dialectic as well: it opens with Coldplay’s “Yellow,” the refrain of which contains the blissfully myopic lines “look at the stars / look how they shine for you,” and ends with Family of the Year’s “Hero,” which negates them: “I don’t wanna be a part of your parade / everyone deserves a chance / to walk with everyone else.”

[2] For a much more cogent take on arrested development (not the show), see Natalia Cecire on puerility in Moonrise Kingdom and Wes Anderson more generally: http://nataliacecire.blogspot.com/search/label/Moonrise%20Kingdom

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Kim Quiogue Andrews is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at Yale.


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