Richard Linklater’s indie hit Boyhood has a pervasive sense of aimlessness. This not only extends to technical matters like the indifferent visual style and the episodic plot structure, but also to the characters themselves. I should add a caveat to that; it’s the men and boys in the film who are aimless. Going down the line we have our protagonist, Mason, who at age 18 remains the same idle dreamer he was at six. Next we have his mother’s partners, including a deadbeat father, an alcoholic professor, and a former soldier with whom the film dispenses offscreen. Mason’s friends are likewise shown as fragmented and rudderless, lacking depth below their male posturing and uneasy, even antagonistic relationship towards women.
Though Boyhood seems to be a coming-of-age story, maybe even a paradigmatic example of the genre, the film is less a document of how a character grows up and more a vehicle for showing the destructive limitations of masculinity. Mason is a more or less static personality whose character usually surfaces only in contrast or comparison to older men. Even in this case, however, it’s his mother who takes the brunt of their failures, physically and emotionally, rendering Mason an observer. His interest in photography supports this interpretation, where the dreamer grows up preferring to see the world through a lens than actively participate in it. Like Linklater himself, he prefers to shoot around the action, as in a scene where he takes photos at a football game but avoids the players.
The football scene is doubly meaningful because Mason has not been an observer of just anything. Rather, his observations and learning center around how to become a man. At every turn, his efforts to find a durable identity end in frustration. One father figure after another appears onscreen, and one after another their lives reveal themselves as desolate at best, destructive at worst. His father shifts from a joyrider to a dull family man with a minivan and devout in-laws. His mother’s husbands all betray her trust, and even apparent paragons of masculinity like her soldier husband are abusive and dangerous. His avoidance of the spectacle on the football field indicates a disillusionment with the stereotypes of masculinity, even as the film draws parallels between Mason and his father, casting doubt that the son will ever be able to avoid repeating the last generation’s mistakes. The son can wear earrings, commune with nature in the desert, and turn inward all he wants, but the demands of capitalism, and the patriarch’s place in it, are unyielding. As his photography teacher reminds him, people who want to make art for a living have to submit to ruthless discipline. Merely seeing, it seems, is not enough to make the profound changes necessary to live as a whole human being in a world dominated by masculine roles.
Compared to his mother, of course, Mason has a light time of it. In the midst of all of its meandering, the film has enough thematic consistency to show that women are the first victims of the violence committed in the name of defending “manhood.” His mother suffers cruelly because for years she has to depend on men to achieve a middle-class living standard. Stuck alone with the responsibility of raising children, she has to struggle for every penny she earns. For most of the film, she is the primary actor, subjected to numerous indignities and abuses but still persevering. If masculine roles are limiting and dissatisfying for the men in Boyhood, they are downright poisonous for the women, who have the double responsibility for their own integrity and the support of the ragged men around them. Women in the film tend to exude a solidity lacking in their male counterparts. Most of them are peripheral characters with only a few scenes––Sheena, who develops a relationship with Mason and abruptly breaks it off before college is an exception––but have a stabilizing presence overall. Whether Linklater can be accused of leaning on the women of his film in the manner of the men he depicts is a question worth asking.
Perhaps the reason I felt that Mason’s character deteriorated as he grew up, becoming less and less distinctive, is inherent to the way boys become men. A byproduct of his resistance to fitting into the prepackaged moulds he finds is a lack of any distinctive characteristics whatsoever. He becomes a negative space, agnostic about himself and unsure of which, if any, values to embrace. As lighthearted as Linklater’s filmmaking tends to be here––albeit balanced with more tense or sombre moments––the film is at its core deeply pessimistic, and with good reason. Manhood is a bankrupt institution, morally and spiritually as well as politically. If this film left me ultimately unsatisfied, it’s because it refused to press this point, no doubt leaving many under the continued impression that manhood, albeit “flawed,” is worth supporting. I know it may be sacrilege to demand anti-patriarchal propaganda from a coming of age film, but what could be a more worthy subject, a more apt genre, to show the hollowing-out that occurs in adolescence? If art is going to be transformative rather than merely reflective, it needs a sharper edge. Instead, Linklater is content to let things play out as they will inside the camera lens, placing stoned detachment above incision. This certainly renders Boyhood more palatable and watchable, but also robs it of effectiveness. There’s a great film lodged in Boyhood’s empty chest, but it’s hard to see it behind the far blander period piece we got.