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Thoughts from the Movie “Boyhood”

February 18, 2015

The Oscar-nominated film Boyhood takes us on a young man’s journey through 12 years. The poignant movie shows the mistakes and triumphs of one family, with parts that we can all relate to. We asked our therapists to share their thoughts from the movie. Read their feelings on Boyhood below before the Academy Awards this Sunday. (Spoiler Alert: This article contains details about the movie’s plot.)

What Sticks?

As the movie, Boyhood, comes to a close, after almost three hours of engrossing footage, we see Mason, now 18 years old, during his send off to college somewhere in that vast trans-Pecos area of Texas. He is moving on with his life and away from all that he has experienced – and sometimes endured – before.  Mason is one of those “sensitive” types, with the capacity to stand back and reflect on what is happening around him even as it is happening. And a lot happens in the course of the 12 years that the film director, Richard Linklater, has chosen to focus on from Mason’s boyhood, from age 6 to 18. In the process, we come to know the main characters in Mason’s family on more intimate terms: his mother, Olivia, a single parent with primary custody of Mason and his older sister, at first  struggling to make ends meet while traveling from one location to another and later taking college courses and completing graduate work to become  a professor;  his father, Mason, Sr., a well-meaning, if on again/off again presence in his children’s lives, travelling considerable distance to see them, while hanging on to his dreams of becoming a musician well into middle age; and Mason’s older sister, Samantha, artfully and relentlessly teasing her younger brother when left alone, but also offering solace when they are forced to do battle with their impossible stepfathers.

As an adolescent, Mason takes up photography, and he uses his camera in the same way that another child might write in his diary to capture what he wants to remember.   Viewing the many events  – both large and small – that happen to Mason and his family over the course of these 12 years,  I could not help but question what it is that will be remembered and  what will really count for him in the end? How will those turbulent years, when he must cope with the drunkenness and violence of his mother’s poor choice of male companionship, affect his own sense of manhood? What kind of adult and lifelong bond with his sister has been forged by going through the rough times together? How will his love of – and respect for – women be shaped by the enduring strength and persistence of his mother – eventually seeing her become someone both loved and admired by her students? What does it mean to have his “oh so cool” dad give up his bohemian dreams, along with his long-term companion – his GTO – in order to settle down and start a new family just as Mason leaves home? And what does Mason make of his father’s actions?  Does he appreciate that he and his sister have become so vital to his dad’s vision of what he wants out of life that he is willing to do it all over again – even if fathering in a very different way now as someone well into middle age?

There is a quite poignant scene – one among so many – that takes place near the movie’s end when Mason and his mother and sister are enjoying a meal together at a local restaurant.  Here they encounter the assistant manager of the restaurant, at first unrecognized, who thanks Olivia profusely for her earlier words of encouragement to him and insists on treating the entire family to dinner.  We now remember an earlier scene, where Olivia is talking to the same young man, a semi-skilled laborer, about a plumbing problem. After listening carefully to his suggestions on how to remedy the problem, as an aside, she tells him that he is a “smart guy” and should consider enrolling in college, as there are evening classes available for someone in his situation.  Moving back to the restaurant scene, we see a puzzled, but not displeased, look of amazement on Olivia’s face, as she registers just how important this off-hand remark has proven to be for this young man and his ability to dream bigger dreams for his future.

This scene brought home to me the incredible mystery involved in raising our children – and in their raising ourselves in the process. At times we put our children through prolonged agonies that we come to later regret, and we worry incessantly about the possible consequences to their tender psyches of our careless and misdirected actions. And then there are those effortless moments of grace – as depicted in the restaurant scene – when a simple kindness or a seemingly inconsequential comment so hits the mark with its simple, elegant truth about what is needed that it can raise someone up to new heights. What sticks? The director Linklater does not pretend to answer this question, but by raising the question throughout this touching and deeply moving movie, we cannot help but think and feel more deeply about our own childhood journeys and those of our children. I treasure this movie and know I will watch it again and again.

– April Westfall, Ph.D.

A True View of Single Parenthood

Boyhood was a unique film. It was difficult to remember that it was a fictional movie with a script, rather than a documentary with sequential family videos portraying a 12 year period of this family’s life. It was a superb presentation of a young family splitting up, the frustrations of co-parenting particularly in the early stages, the hardships and difficulties of single parenthood and how it all works out one way or another for most families. So although it was fiction, it was also authentic and ‘true’. There is no way that single parenting is easy. Money is usually a major problem and often causes single mothers to make unwise choices in boyfriends or second husbands. Loneliness is also usually a major problem that often causes single mothers to make unwise choices. I could go on in this vein, and the mother Olivia, portrayed by Patricia Arquette, made some unwise, perhaps we could say terrible, choices. She was trying to survive at many levels and, at the same time, provide her children with a home, an education, a semblance of family life and a ‘good enough’ childhood. Most single parents could empathize with her, and were especially thankful if they didn’t make the same mistakes.

The father Mason, Sr., played by Ethan Hawke, also had a difficult journey but it was different. Despite his job, financial and housing problems, he did make being a dad a priority which greatly benefited the kids and his ex-wife, even though he did not have the day to day hassles and responsibilities. The two parents provided very different models of blended families and one of the lighter, even funny, scenes was the step-grandparents giving the son birthday presents. What would a teenage boy want other than a rifle and a bible??

The movie does make it clear how resilient both kids and parents can be, despite lots of wrong turns and imperfect family life. It was inspiring and hopeful to see them all celebrating their son’s graduation together.

– Margaret Shapiro, LCSW