Why ‘Boyhood’ Is Also About Fatherhood

August 22, 2014 6:00 a.m.

There is a moment in Richard Linklater’s subtle and unique Boyhood (2014, IFC Films) where your breath catches in your chest, and you’re aware of the reality of what you’re watching. Mason (played beautifully by reserved newcomer Ellar Coltrane) and his girlfriend Sheena are headed to Austin to visit his sister at college and explore what could be their hometown in a year’s time. Seeing him behind the wheel, you’re struck by that same feeling of awe that hits when you see a neighbor’s son or family friend’s daughter after many years- feelings of awe and shock at how the years pass. The only difference is, by that point in the film, we’ve been watching Mason’s transformation unfold in relative real time.

Filmed incrementally over the course of twelve years, Boyhood treats the viewer to an organic unfolding of one Texas family’s triumphs, struggles, and growth. But while the film is billed as the coming of age story of Coltrane’s Mason, there is a second Mason who grows significantly and escapes his own “boyhood,” so to speak: Mason, Sr., played by the seemingly ageless Ethan Hawke.

Much is made of the “emerging adulthood” state of young adults, with adults in their late twenties and early thirties shamed for their need to live with roommates or back at home with their parents. Hawke’s early iteration of Mason Sr. is rife with the fears that come when early parenthood is thrown into that equation. His first encounter with Mason and his older sister Sam (Lorelai Linklater) is full of the stereotypes that we associate with the “weekend visits with Dad”: offers of gifts, bowling outings, halted and awkward exchanges, and the inevitable admonishment of Mom when she arrives home and no homework has been done. Through it all, we see a man who wants to be a part of his kids’ lives, but doesn’t yet truly know how to reconcile their needs with his own.

Over the course of the film’s two and a half hour running time, Mason Sr.’s development runs in relative parallel to his namesake’s. In many ways, the two help each other grow. Mason Senior’s frustrated outburst in the car about the hesitation with which his kids disclose to him is responded to calmly by his junior counterpart with a plea to let their conversations unfold more naturally, acknowledging that it’s a two-way street. This sage advice from a then-seven year old is heeded, and the evolution of their conversations is notable from that point forward. As Mason and Sam grow, we see their father share with them more easily about his job prospects, the idea of dating other women, and his concerns for them about safe sex and distraction-free driving.

More signposts of Senior’s maturity appear gradually, but none more breathtakingly than his arrival to pick Mason and Sam up for a weekend away for Mason’s birthday. He arrives at the curb via minivan (having sold his ubiquitous seatbeat-free GTO), sans beard, and with a new wife and baby in tow; their destination is his in-laws house. What follows is a series of pastimes that seem ill-fitting for the kids (receiving a Bible and shotgun for birthday gifts, shooting guns, going to church), but appear to be coming more naturally to Senior.

One can’t help but wonder how much of this transformation is true to Hawke’s actual personal life. While much has been said about the dissolution of Ellar Coltrane’s parents’ marriage during filming, less has been said (or, perhaps, needs to be said) about the split Hawke underwent with his own wife, actress Uma Thurman, during his time filming Boyhood. As an example, he sings a lullaby to then Mason and Sam after an Astros game, roommate Jimmy accompanying him on guitar; this song was based in large part on one Hawke wrote for his own kids around the same time. The pain evident in the song’s lyrics are immensely fitting for the scene and situation at hand, and even more poignant when paired with Hawke’s own familial struggles at the time. He has since remarried, and created a life that better fits his new family; it’s all the more moving to see him do the same on screen in near parallel.

Sam asks over the weekend, somewhat disgustedly, if her father is becoming one of those “God people.” Maybe not, but what he is becoming is attuned to the needs of others, to his place in the world, and his role in a family. The fit isn’t a perfect one; he still seems to be at a loss for fatherly words at Mason’s high school graduation party, and doesn’t have cash in the instant after his ex-wife Olivia (Patricia Arquette) accepts his offer to pay for part of the event. This particular scene is an interesting one to watch unfold- while Mason Senior has clearly evolved over the course of the twelve years, we see a transformation in Olivia that is at once more intentional, and less successful. We see her moving the family in pursuit of continued education, take on professorial duties, and remarry twice, but ultimately she ends up in the same place as she started. Her development seems arrested at times, while the Masons in her life seem to be moving ever forward. That forward motion takes us aback at times, as we take in the gravity of what we’re seeing. But as they continue driving ahead- Senior in his cliched minivan, Junior in his beat-up pickup, we can’t help but be in awe of just how far they’ve come.

Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog (“The Dedicated Amateur“) and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I’S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.

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