Stereotypes and Nostalgia in Linklater’s Boyhood


Anticipation:   2.5/5    Boyhood has received critical acclaim from the festival circuit, but are critics interested in the film or the fact that it took 12 years to make?

Final Verdict:   1/5    Stereotypes abound! This will be considered Linklater’s masterpiece solely because of the extraordinary production circumstances. The nostalgic charm of the film wears off very quickly.

Does anyone remember Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), three films that span almost twenty years involving the same characters? Or Dazed and Confused (1993), a film that explores the final day of junior high and the rites of passage boys must face on their journey into high school? All Richard Linklater films? Notice a pattern in the passage-of-time theme in all four films when compared to Boyhood? The only difference being the on screen time lapse of the latter? No? How about Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films (1959-1979), another 20-year series? Neither? Oh well… (Hint: it’s been done before…)

Boyhood chronicles 12 years in the life of Mason, a young boy whose eyes guide the audience from the innocence of childhood to the maturity of young adulthood and the milestone moments in between. Although the entire cast and crew bring their A-game to the production, Boyhood fails to break new ground other than the fact that it took 12 years to make.

There’s a moment near the end of film when Mason catches his mother, Olivia, (a beautifully nuanced performance by Patricia Arquette) crying at her kitchen table. Slightly concerned by his mother’s strong reaction to his departure for college, he inquires about what is causing her dispiritedness. She looks up at him and exclaims: “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go, like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fuckin’ funeral! …I just thought there would be more.”

My first reaction was “I feel exactly the same about the film. I know that that is the point. So what’s the big deal? That it took 12 years to make?” I suppose that that is a milestone in director Richard Linklater’s career, the same way his Oscar nomination has now become. Surely Boyhood is the epitome of the time theme he has explored throughout his directing career, but what’s confusing about the film is the lack of any real focus beyond the aging of characters. Case in point, the film seems to be about Olivia rather than Mason. We witness everything through Mason’s eyes, obviously, but he never reacts to his environment. The audience is supposed to identify with him yet they aren’t privy to any of his reactions, feelings, nothing.

Which brings me to my next issue with Boyhood. The stereotypes. Linklater accentuates the stereotypes of growing up by catering to a deep sense of nostalgia felt by people who claim that life goes by so fast. The stereotype at the forefront is the struggling single/or not mother. Uma Thurman was in a terrible movie called Motherhood (2009) in which she plays a struggling mother trying to get her 6-year-old daughter’s birthday party ready. The crap she goes through during the day is slapstick at its worst. Another is the Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011) in which Parker plays a mother/finance executive and happens to give purpose to the title of this other train wreck of a movie. Latch those onto Oprah and the selflessness of motherhood motif has been rehashed in cinema and on television so many times that the only conclusion that we can come to is … sometimes it’s hard being a mother? Being a parent is hard work?

Sadly, the men in Olivia’s life are the real ‘boys’ of the film. This yet supports another stereotype, that which pigeonholes men as pricks who tuck tail and run at the first whiff of responsibility. First, we meet Olivia’s boyfriend who, in the midst of an argument regarding a babysitter cancelling, is given the most clichéd speech about her having actual responsibilities; that she can’t go out even if she desperately wants to. The argument sets up the ‘irresponsible male’ motif Olivia struggles with in Boyhood.

When the audience meets Samantha and Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, they are already prepared to judge him. He is an absent father who drives a GTO, listens to rock n’ roll and still lives with a roommate in a dilapidated and filthy two-bedroom apartment. The father seemingly works in Alaska, which is just another one of the bullshit lies he apparently uses to escape responsibility. To add to his demonization, when he sees his kids, he showers them with gifts under the condemnatory gaze of his ex-mother-in-law.  Olivia later voices her mother’s ocular castigation by scolding him.  Then there is the older man, the University professor, the complete opposite of her childlike exes, the stereotypical father figure she clasps onto because he exudes the sense of responsibility she is seeking. Surprise! He turns out to be an abusive alcoholic. Finally, she ages and takes his place, becoming the older ‘wiser’ woman seeking a younger male, entering the cougar phase of her life. Surprise! Another irresponsible male, who drinks and seeks to assert his authority over Mason in a masculine display of agonistic behavior after being symbolically emasculated when he leaves the Military and becomes a security guard.

Linklater displays the stereotypes and accepts them as fact. He does not question anything, which is essentially the same thing Mason does throughout the film. Just because the story may somewhat be autobiographical or closer to reality, does not make it any better. Mason is nothing more than a blossoming hipster; a product of his time, disinterested by anything including the advice everyone, not to mention his parents, seeks to give him. He sleepwalks through the entire film. The only time we actually see emotion is when he is forced to have his head shaved by the abusive, alcoholic step-father. It becomes the equivalent of watching a “reality TV” show in fast forward, feeding the voyeur inside every audience member, but providing no actual nourishment. Yes, the situations Boyhood depicts are real in society, but does that make it interesting? Why am I supposed to be watching Mason? Because he’s normal? At no point during the film is there any digging into the psychology of the characters. Nothing is discussed, nothing is subverted, everything remains at the surface level. By doing so, Linklater, like the rest of the adult males in the film, avoids taking responsibility for any of the opinions he may have had concerning the stereotypes he is pointing out in Boyhood. The stereotypes presented seek validation rather than comment on what the situations Mason faces may entail.

Apparently, I’m not the nostalgic type. I sat through Boyhood jittery as hell, wanting it to be over after the first hour because the “Wow! Look at how much he’s grown” factor had dissipated. In an interview with Total Film, Linklater stated that he wanted to “mirror how all our lives feel,” but where I think it becomes problematic is that the film shows us a darker side of the human condition: the complete dissatisfaction people have with their lives. When Mason asks his mother what she was expecting and she answers that she thought there’d be more, I was taken aback because after everything she’s been through, all she’s achieved, she still cannot provide her own gratification.

Boyhood parades the nostalgic cliché “Life goes by so fast,” yet strangely, with a 165 minute running time, I caught myself thinking that it should go by just a little faster so I can get back to mine.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Less says:

    Good job!


  2. “Boyhood fails to break new ground other than the fact that it took 12 years to make.” YES, THANK YOU!

    The stereotyping didn’t bother me as much as it seemed to affect you and your opinion. But I think that was because I was just waiting for some wow-factor to happen that I let these details slip haha!

    Liked by 1 person

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