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The Search for Meaning in an Age of Pointlessness

I watched Richard Linklater’s Boyhood three times in two weeks, and with each viewing, the movie grew fresher and fresher. Running at nearly three hours, the film is the simple story of a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) who grows up before our eyes. It is about his family, and it is about life in general. This is not a melodramatic coming of age story. It is not a story laden with traumatic or earth shattering events. It is simply a 160 minute slice of life delivered moment-by-moment. From the everyday minutiae of school, work, home, love, boyfriends, girlfriends, graffiti, GTOs, cigarettes, bowling, condoms, shotguns, and camping trips, the movie ebbs and flows with life’s little traumas and dramas, triumphs and failures, but it never stops and showcases a single moment as the Ultimate Life Changing Event. Rather it shows life as an accumulation of moments that push us forward. It is both the singularity of each moment and the entire sum of the moments that make life what it is and that make this movie so universally human.

How can such a story be so captivating? What drove me to tears the first time I watched it, and what compelled me to watch it again and again (including at this very moment when I want to rush to the theater to watch it a fourth time)? Perhaps it is because Linklater’s film is about the continuum of life and accepting life on its own terms in the very moment we are living it, whether we are a six year old boy, a struggling single mom, or an absentee father reclaiming a relationship with his kids.  Though the movie is titled Boyhood, it could just as easily be called Motherhood, Fatherhood, or just Life.  No matter who we are or where we are, if we are alive, we are dealing with life and the act of living itself is a challenge. No matter what the circumstances, we are propelled from one moment to the next, navigating the minefield of emotions and experience that comes with the simple fact of being human.

Ironically, one of the things that makes the film so emotionally effective is its lack of melodrama or extreme trauma. Mason grows up. He is faced with disappointments and triumphs. His single mom Olivia (in a show stopping performance by Patricia Arquette) makes what she calls a series of “bad life choices.” She goes through a string of lousy husbands and moves the kids from town to town, while still trying to be the best mom she can. In between, she gets a college education and becomes a professor. Biological father Mason Senior (Linklater veteran Ethan Hawke) grows from beer guzzling, muscle car driving, cigarette smoking rebel Dad to a subdued, minivan driving insurance salesman who marries into a Christian family and has a new baby. Mason’s sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) torments her brother, endures the Bad Stepdads, and goes off to college. Kids get high, drink, and have sex, but none of it is extreme. No one gets pregnant or overdoses. It is just accepted as how life is.

Still there is an underlying tension throughout the film. Except for the scenes with abusive alcoholic stepdad Bill (Asshole with a Capital A), the movie has very little outward violence or trauma, yet it still feels like we are constantly on the edge of disaster. The tension is so taut that we expect things to fall apart at any moment. The fact that they don’t and that life goes on makes the film even more emotional because we internalize the possibilities that exist in the spaces between moments. The movie puts us on alert, but then the bells and whistles go off inside of us rather than on the screen. We foresee the things that never happen – the car crashes, gun accidents, and other tragedies that never actually occur on screen but could under the wrong circumstances.

There are threats of danger – stepfathers brimming with loathing of the world and themselves, a party where drunken teen boys heave circular saw blades at a wood plank, a shotgun pointed in the wrong direction – but these scenes are presented with an even hand and a fluidity of perspective. They are delivered with the same emotional investment as scenes with kids riding skateboards or spraying graffiti on an underpass, girls singing songs and dancing, or a family gathering for a graduation party. Each moment meshes with the next, and we experience the film like we experience the continuum of life. We take it as it comes. In an interview on NPR, Richard Linklater talks about intentionally not inserting anything overly dramatic within the plot. He says:  “Just getting through life is traumatic.” And it is. From the moment we are born, to coming of age, to having children of our own and watching them grow – living is itself a traumatic experience, and Linklater captures that beautifully in this film.

boyhoodCertainly how the film was made provokes an emotional response in the audience and lends itself to capturing life as a continuous series of moments that we navigate by the seat of our pants. Filmed with the same actors over 12 years for 3 days a year, the movie traces the characters as they age in “real time.” Linklater took a gamble when casting a six year old Coltrane for a movie that would be filmed over twelve years, and gambling on this kid infuses the film with the gamble that we all go through in life. We can’t predict the outcomes of our life, and Linklater in many ways could not predict the outcomes of his film by casting this non-actor child in a role with a commitment of twelve years. In fact, at one point, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei wanted to quit the project and asked Linklater to kill off her character Samantha. He said, “We’re not making that kind of movie.” No melodrama!

By being a fiction, the film gives the audience room to inscribe our own narratives onto this story of life. We are not locked into the closed circuit of documentary truth. But by filming the same actors over time, the very real documentary evidence of the actors’ aging reinforces the very real passage of time in our own lives. The film becomes a kind of mirror for our own lives, and specifically about the passage of time. Though called Boyhood, really the movie is about the inevitability of becoming an adult. That itself is traumatic whether you are a child growing up or a parent watching your own children grow up.  The movie is not about a single perspective. Rather, Linklater simultaneously navigates multiple spaces on the life continuum (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenting).

Certainly the movie belongs to the boy Mason as we watch him go from being a curious child, to a boy who absorbs the world around him, and then growing into an active participant as a teenager and young adult. But the movie also very much belongs Mason’s mother Olivia and his father Mason Senior. Patricia Arquette pours her very soul into her performance, and we see a woman at odds with trying to balance her own passions and ambitions with caring for her children. She shows tough love, but her love is real. She is both strong and exceptionally vulnerable. Mason Senior has to cope with “growing up” in his own way. Both he and Olivia try to do their best by their kids, but it is also clear that they are in the process of growing every bit as much as their children. In fact, the movie is about the fact that we are all growing every day, and that life is not a finite process. You don’t just be a kid and then be a grown-up. Instead, we are all always growing. It’s just when you’re a grown up, you become much more aware of your existential position.

Various iterations of pointlessness are interwoven throughout the story, and a sense of pointlessness seems to be the looming point in everyone’s life. What is the point? That is the question characters ask repeatedly. Samantha rebels against drunken Asshole stepdad Bill: “What is the point of dusting?” Bill answers: “Because I tell you to.” Well, submitting to authority to clean up dirt that is only going to reappear in a day is certainly one of the most pointless exercises we face in life. Even rebel dad Mason Senior sells his prize GTO for a minivan, betraying Mason Junior who was promised the car on his sixteenth birthday. “Life is expensive,” Mason Sr says. “Someday you can work hard and buy your own GTO.” What is the point of making promises that we forget or unable to keep because of pointless obligations?

Everyone in the movie is struggling to find identity – adults and children alike – when being faced with pointless choices. Asshole Bill has bought into the whole system, and the outcome is rage, alcoholism, and self-loathing. “You don’t like me much, do you?” he asks Mason Junior. “That’s okay. I don’t like me either.” This may seem funny on the surface, but ultimately it is tragic and true. Bill bought into the pointlessness and now is empty. He fills himself with alcohol just to run away from himself.

Olivia hits the wall of pointlessness over and over in her series of “bad life choices.” In one scene, she breaks down and tells her children: “Yes, life sucks. I don’t have the answers to everything!” In her final and saddest scenes in the movie, she buries her face in her hands as her son Mason leaves home for college and she is left with an empty nest. All her life seems to be flushed down the drain as her children grow up and leave. She cries, “I expected so much more than this!” And that is the last we hear from her.  Expectations seem to be the source of pointlessness. Perhaps if we expected less, we wouldn’t worry so much about the point.  After Mason graduates high school, he and his dad go to a concert, and Mason asks his dad: “What’s the point?” His dad answers, “Of what?” Mason Jr answers, “You know. Of everything?” Mason Senior profoundly answers, “How the fuck am I supposed to know? You’re feeling things, right?”

And that’s what the movie does. It makes us feel as these people struggle with the most traumatic part of life – trying to find meaning. Olivia tries to find meaning through men and education. Mason Sr finally finds meaning by forfeiting his Bad Ass GTO and succumbing to love and family over muscle car masculinity. As he tells Mason at the end of the movie, “I finally became the castrated man your mom always wanted me to be.” He may be castrated, but he is happy. He found a place where he can feel. The scene with Mason Senior’s new family is truly authentic. Bibles, shotguns, and sing-a-alongs, there is nothing remotely insincere about his new place in life. After all, in America, Bibles and shotguns are a part of everyday life. Some of the last verses in the song that the family sings together are: “Departures and arrivals go hand in hand.” And that is the cycle of this movie and the cycle of life. One moment departs, and a new one arrives.

The same could be said for the political backdrop of the movie. Linklater masterfully includes moments of political history situating the movie within a post 9/11 generation: the Iraq War; atrocities in Fallujah; the McCain/Obama election. But because his approach to the film is so subtly universal, he also allows us to reflect on the cycles of political history as well as personal growth in our own lives. For example, insert my childhood (born in 1962, the same year as Linklater), and I could add the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Nixon/McGovern campaign. Same story, different years. Life goes on . . . even in a shitty world.

This is a movie about growing pains – the growing pains of children and the growing pains of adults. The pain of getting through life, and the moments of joy that are the compensation of that pain. While the adult side is portrayed with tremendous pathos by Arquette’s Olivia, Ellar Coltrane’s Mason gives us the full spectrum of life. We start by watching him believe in magic by doing things like shoving rocks in a pencil sharpener to make arrowheads and reflecting on the magical origins of wasps. As he moves through a world that is often unpredictable – from his mother’s parade of drunken husbands to new cities and houses – we watch through his eyes as he internalizes his experiences. He absorbs everything and the camera closes in on his open eyes taking it all in. We watch him experience pain and magic mostly in silence, and then finally we see him relinquish the idea of magic when he speaks out and tells his dad that “Right now, this moment, there really are no elves in the world, right?” From that point, Mason’s voice drops in tone and becomes more audible as he speaks up for himself externalizing his feelings. He inches his way toward the adult world and becomes an active participant. It is both a subtly nuanced performance and the witnessing of real life change as Coltrane literally does grow up on screen.

Mason grows, and life circles and cycles on itself as we see in a myriad of mirrored images.  From whales to graffiti to peach schnapps, the movie turns on itself in a kaleidoscopic network of imagery that repeats itself in variations of reality and magic. Nearly three hours after we watch six year old Mason lying on the grass alone daydreaming at clouds, we watch 18 year old Mason high on pot sitting on a rock with a girl Nicole by his side and daydreaming at clouds. Nicole says, “You know that saying about seizing the moment? I think it’s the other way around. The moments seize you.” Mason looks all around him, and says, “Yeah. The moments. They are everywhere.” And in that moment, we understand the point of the pointlessness – it is in the moment. All of Linklater’s moments in this film have led us to this one moment of hope – two people looking out at the open world and letting the moment seize them. It really is the best we can ask for.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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