Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s beautiful new film, is so compellingly real it’s easy to forget we aren’t watching a 12-year documentary of an actual family. With deft cinematic strokes, Linklater melds one phase of this family’s life. And Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) journey through adolescence from ages 6 – 18, moves seamlessly into the next. Yet, Linklater’s interest in realities underscores the fact that life is anything but seamless – a pretty harsh and at times discouraging truth. But the director also gives us a not-insignificant take-away gift voiced by Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), to his son: “What’s the point? Point is – you’re feeling stuff.” Yes, Linklater – bravo! How more right can you be?
Feeling Stuff is the Point of Life in Boyhood
Feeling stuff isn’t easy – but it is the point of life. We may not always think so, but feelings are at the heart of everything we do, decide, and want. Everything we think. Everything we plan. Feeling stuff is unavoidable. Yet, many people either try to avoid feeling or don’t know what they’re really feeling even though they have plenty of emotional reactions.
As Boyhood begins, we meet Mason, a very sensitive 6-year-old boy. A boy who watches, wonders, worries, asks questions about everything. Mason tries to figure things out: where wasps come from, why a pencil sharpener can sharpen pencils and not rocks into arrowheads. What he can’t make sense of is a father gone, his parents’ love gone awry, and his mother’s struggles and mistakes. He’s trying very hard to understand.
Why & When It’s Too Hard to Feel Feelings
Mason, though, has already put his feelings of fear and loss far from his awareness. He has no choice. There’s no place for them. This is not to fault Olivia (Patricia Arquette), his mom. We see early in the film that her kids come first. But, she’s young and alone. She can barely take a deep breath. Loving her kids; she does her best. Yet she doesn’t know herself or her own feelings very well. And, she might even be running from them, making it impossible to help Mason with his.
We first see how much Mason worries in a poignant scene after Olivia announces they’re moving: “Do you still love Dad? What if we move and he can’t find us?” Olivia has to make this move and she wants to make it all OK. She says the “right” reassuring thing:
“We won’t be hard to find,” but she leaves Mason (and his sister Samantha, too) alone with sadness and fear. She doesn’t know it would help to say feeling things, like: “It’s scary, isn’t it? It’s sad to leave your friends.” She’s probably scared, too. If she feels her fear, she might not be able to keep putting one foot ahead of the other to make a better life.
A Mom Who Has Problems With Her Feelings
Olivia’s problems with her own feelings lead her to choose men who can’t stand their feelings either. Consider Bill (Marco Perella), the alcoholic professor she marries. He drinks, demeans, humiliates, pits the kids against each other, and sadistically controls and abuses those closest to him. Why? Because he doesn’t like himself at all. Olivia leaves. She protects her kids.
But, once again, she can’t see what they are feeling. Perhaps, she’s too preoccupied with her own trauma. Maybe she feels too guilty. So she can’t see that underneath Samantha’s anger and Mason’s attempt to independently soldier on into yet another new school is fear and loss. Sadly, she teaches psychology but doesn’t get help to know herself better. Or, in a deeper way, her kids.
A Father Who Encourages His Kid’s Feelings
Mason and Samantha’s largely absentee father comes back. But he isn’t much better with feelings at first. Kids need parents to help them; otherwise, they can be overwhelmed by feelings they don’t know what to do with. Or they’re unable to use their feelings to make good choices. To his credit, Mason Sr. sees his mistakes and keeps trying to “get better.”
He wants Mason and Samantha to talk to him. He wants to hear what they’re really saying. And he talks to them – even about difficult subjects like sex. Deep down, he knows feelings are important and Mason, Sr., in Boyhood, seems to be able to handle his own. He helps his son, Mason, accept loss and to learn that loss is not the end of everything.
And, Mason Sr. ultimately finds new love. So does Mason Jr. Olivia is less fortunate, and her struggles and overwhelming feelings of loneliness and disappointment in love threaten to get the best of her. Olivia’s left leading a narrower and narrower life. Her explosion of anger, negativity, and depression when Mason leaves for college (“next is my fucking funeral … I just thought there’d be more”) serve to close out people and new possibilities. Feeling stuff is important. But, it’s a problem when feelings take over and when negative feelings seem to be the reality. And, also, when these negative feelings stop anything new from happening.
Boyhood & Searching For Connections
Mason’s boyhood is about searching for connections in the midst of disconnections, for freedom from other people’s control and expectations. He doesn’t want to hide behind a screen. He wants to be understood, to find someone “on the same page.” Mason learns, with his dad’s help, to be open to his feelings and new experiences. This can bring, at times, hurt and loss. But, to really be alive, we all have to take that risk.
Mason gains the freedom to follow his dreams, to go his own way, to be, purely, himself. This is the kind of freedom feeling stuff brings. If feelings aren’t pushed aside as if they don’t exist; if they are worked out and understood for what they are (feelings and not realities) – life can change and new choices can be made. That’s the stuff of feelings. And, that’s the stuff of hope.