Some people drink, some people workout in excess, some people get high—I go to the movies. In the summer especially, when people are drinking on patios or out on their boats, I’m probably in the middle of a dark theater by myself trying to escape into another world for a couple hours.
Yesterday I took myself across the river to E Street to see Boyhood.
I have been waiting for Boyhood to come out ever since I heard about it. I love Richard Linklater’s films—even The Newton Boys. There’s an honesty and a thoughtfulness to his work that I don’t seem to find in any other filmmaker. In Linklater’s films, you get the distinct feeling that he is trying to capture something about the human experience in order to relate to other people, not for self-indulgence. He, like me, seems to have devoted his life to, well, trying to figure this life shit out.
Boyhood is yet another spectacular attempt, starting at youth and ending with the main character, Mason, at age 18 and starting college. It was filmed over the course of 12 years, so you get a striking continuity to the main characters that has, as far as I know, never been done before in a non-documentary film. The pop culture references peppered throughout are nostalgia-inducing. The soundtrack is woven beautifully into the movie and becomes an element of the story. (Ethan Hawke talking about Wilco’s “Hate It Here” is something I never knew I needed until it happened.)
I’m not exactly sure why, but my immediate reaction after seeing Boyhood was to burst into tears—both the good kind of tears and the bad kind of tears. For who I am, who I was, and who I thought I would be.
The plot of Boyhood simply is the progression of growing up. That’s it. If we’ve reached adulthood, then we’ve gone through our own parallel version of this. We’ve gone to new schools, moved away, lost friends, made new ones, dicked around, had boyfriends/girlfriends, fought with our parents. We’ve lived this. So why would you want to sit in a theater for nearly three hours and watch a fictional character go through it?
Precisely because you get to watch it all at once.
In three hours you get to see what it’s like to grow up and go through adolescence and become that 18-year-old kid who is simultaneously terrified and exhilarated by life.
Imagine twelve years of your life truncated into three hours, so you can see the entirety of the awkwardness and the fun and the pain and the crushes and the feeling like everyone is against you and the advice from adults who either talk down to you or try to relate to you. It’s a lot to take. It was a lot to live through. And it’s a lot to recollect in three hours.
Even though I didn’t have the all experiences Mason had—with the divorced parents, the alcoholic stepparents, the moving around, the changing schools, the cell phone at age 12, the growing up in Texas—I still found a lot in him to relate to. I found so many parallels to my own childhood it hurt, and I imagine it would be the same for a lot of people (at least in my age bracket). Because it’s not the what, it’s the that.
I don’t know if I’m the same person I was when I was 10. I don’t know if I’m the same person I was 10 years ago, 10 months ago, or even 10 minutes ago. I’m not sure how far back identity extends or when it starts or when you begin to become your own person or if you ever really are your own person.
But I’ve always tried to keep in my mind what it was like to be a child, to be a teenager, to be young, to be amazed by things, to have a lack of self-consciousness and then extreme self-consciousness, to be confused and sure and happy and sad all at once. Because the trials of youth never really leave you, no matter how much power and responsibility you might think you have as an adult.
There’s still always that little part of you that can experience awe at new things or that can internalize teasing from the popular kids or that isn’t cynical or self-conscious or constrained by the burdens brought on by the red tape of adulthood.
These things don’t leave you just because you pay taxes and vote and can order off a wine list.
Over the course of Boyhood, you see unfold the way parents start to relate to their children as people. I’m not a parent, but on the societal level I’ve always (even when I was a child) thought we don’t give children enough credit. We talk down to them and tell them there are concepts too complex for them to handle. We either put too many expectations on them or not enough. We don’t validate their personhood in its entirety, instead picking out one trait or one skill to praise or harp on.
There’s nothing terribly profound about the character of Mason in the film. What makes him relatable and what makes you care about him is that he is trying to figure shit out, figure out who he is, and have experiences for the sake of the experiencing.
And that’s the thing I wanted to cling to as I left the theater.
There are a few scenes in the last hour of the movie in which adult figures in Mason’s life try to give him advice—he needs to be responsible, he needs to work hard, he has potential if he could just tap into it—and, sure, these are lessons, perhaps even with merit, but you can say them all you like and they won’t matter. You will only ever internalize those life lessons you come to on your own. What these adults miss, what people miss, is that they don’t know any better than anyone else. There are different ways to live responsibly or to live out your potential that might not look right to anyone else.
But you have to come to this on your own through your own experiences.
And even then you might never get there.
I never gave much thought to being an adult when I was a kid. I never had a plan. I have always been more interested in the bigger picture of the world around me. I had vague notions that I’d get a college degree, work a boring office job, and maybe get married. I think I was always a bit defeated by this conception of living a human life, and I knew at age 16 that I’d hate it but could resign myself to it if nothing else came along.
It took me 27 years to realize that, oh, I’m a writer.
My drive has always been to understand. To create. It’s never been all the boring stuff I’m supposed to care about or the good advice I just can’t take. The thing is, I feel like this is probably a lot of people, or maybe it’s not, but I think it’s Mason in this film. And I think it’s me. And I think that’s why Boyhood struck such a nerve.
The thing about growing up, about youth, about potential, is that it doesn’t stop. I’m no less sure about life now as I was when I was a kid or a teenager. But I keep living it anyway.