Faith & Film: Boyhood

“Boyhood” is the highly acclaimed new film from writer-director Richard Linklater. This is the coming-of-age story of Mason, a Texas boy who we see grow from the age of 6 to going away to college. What makes “Boyhood” unique is that it was actually filmed over a 12-year period using the same actors. In this way, actor Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, actually does grow up on camera, without the need for makeup or special effects. In addition, we see his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up too.

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play the parents of Mason and Samantha. Mom tries her best to raise the children, despite her sometimes desperate circumstances and two unsuccessful marriages. Eventually Mom gets her degree and teaches psychology at a college. As the movie opens, Dad returns from an extended trip to Alaska. Dad has charm and obviously cares about his kids. However, he is irresponsible and does not appear to support the kids financially, leaving that up to struggling Mom. Dad eventually settles down, marries, gets a job (I think) and has another child.

“Boyhood” is a collection of moments over the years, some harrowing (the violent outbursts of Mason’s first stepfather), some sweet (Mason walking alongside a girl on a bicycle who invites him to a party). Other moments are ordinary (first day in school); some are sad (Mom desperately trying to figure out how to raise her kids on her meager income).

For me, “Boyhood” is a movie that’s easier to admire than to like. Certainly I admire the dedication of Linklater and the cast, working with the project over many years. However, I never really warmed up to the movie. One major problem is the film’s length: at two hours 45 minutes, I was ready for it to end long before it actually did.

Viewers should take note that the film contains more profanity than I expected, along with some adolescent experimentations with marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco.

Another problem for me was the lack of any kind of spirituality. The only reference to faith or any kind takes place on Mason’s 15th birthday. Mason’s step-grandmother gives him a Bible (“with the words of Jesus in red”) for his 15th birthday. I was taken aback that the audience laughed at the scene! After the gift of the Bible, Mason’s step-grandfather presents him with the gift of a rifle. The family goes to a small storefront church the next day. Dad says that he’s glad Mason will return for his stepbrother’s baptism. When Mason asks if he was ever baptized, Dad looks at him and assures him that they’re not “God people.”

Through much of the film, Mason seems to have little interest in life, other than hanging out with his friends. Eventually, he takes an interest in photography. Mason shows some talent in this area and plans to pursue this in college. Young Coltrane plays Mason as something of an observer moving through his young life.

Certainly the characters in “Boyhood” reflect many people in our contemporary world. Mom works hard to provide for her children, despite her lack of support and bad choices with men. Patricia Arquette’s performance is the most affecting in the film. I could feel her exhaustion, trying to complete college in order to get a job, and raise her children. Samantha and Mason bounce from one family and school to another. At least Dad is around, even if he’s less than ideal. Despite all the time I spent with the family, I never felt close to them. They seemed strangely distant.

I wondered what the lives of the four main characters, Mom, Dad, Samantha, and Mason, would have been like if there had been more of a stable family structure. They all seem to be wandering through life with little purpose or meaning. I couldn’t help but think that a relationship with some kind of faith community would have given some meaning to their lives.

Tom Condon, OP