“Boyhood” and the End of Manhood

I have heard the sound of a civilization collapsing. It occurred at the end of the newly released, highly worshipped film Boyhood. It happened when the film ended and the lights came up, and a few people in the theater actually applauded.

They may have been the only ones left awake. To say that Boyhood is dull is to say that that anthrax can cause an adverse reaction in humans. This film, written and directed by Richard Linklater, is so totally aimless that it eventually enrages. It seems to go on for weeks and nothing really happens.

It also validates two claims of modern cultural critics. The first is that we are now living in a post-literate age. The second is that American boys are having a very difficult time becoming men. Boyhood validates those two claims in spades.

For too many filmmakers today there’s no need to impose a narrative on a film, or create suspense, or even have cinematography that’s all that interesting. More, they’ll give you millions of dollars and even awards. It’s why the great director William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist and The French Connection, called modern films “opium for the eyes.” You don’t have to worry about things like character, plot, motivation, or tone.


The big gimmick of Boyhood is that it was filmed for a few days each year over the course of twelve years. The main character goes from being a six year-old kid to a college freshman. His name is Mason and he’s played by Ellar Coltrane. Over the course of more than a decade, Mason deals with three bad fathers, a mother with very bad judgment, and a sister who’s just kind of there. Also: changing schools, moves, his first beer and girlfriend, evil jocks, and the other usual teenage rituals in postmodern America.

By the end of the film, Mason is mealy-mouthed, taking drugs from strangers, unable to articulate any philosophical ideas about the world, and sporting a scruffy beard. It’s I Became a Teenaged Hipster. 

I suppose there should be something exciting in seeing Mason get older. But the thing is, Mason is not interesting. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the adults in his life are either the dissolute liberals like his biological parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), or borderline crazy conservative law and order types. Between those extremes there is nothing to really engage Mason. At one point his mother tells him and his sister, “You two are adults,” but there’s no indication that that’s true. Mason hasn’t been in a war, joined a band, gone on the road, or been in a fight.

Every adolescent boy has a moment where they read a book, play a sport, play in a rock band, or meet a girl—or all four—and it transforms them. Mason reads Kurt Vonnegut’s great book Slaughterhouse Five. He meets and kisses a lovely girl. He has his first beer with a group of other teens. Yet for the endless hours that Boyhood unspooled, he seems like a bystander; nothing seems to excite him, make him want to charge ahead and change the world, or even fall in love with it. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that if a man hasn’t found something he’s willing to die for, he’s not fit to live. At some point in the teen years, most men have found something they are willing to die for, be it a girl, your buds, or your country. Such turning points are the stuff of great, or even good, movies.

Not everything in the culture has to come down to a liberal and conservative thing, but there is a moment in Boyhood when you wish, if only for the sake of the story, that conservatives in the film were treated a little more fairly. It’s clear from what passes for a script that Linklater doesn’t like Republicans. There are terribly dated jokes about George Bush and Sarah Palin, jokes that seem doubly weak now that we’ve had six years of Barack Obama. Then Mason’s step-grandparents give him a Bible and a rifle for his birthday. The liberal Washington, D.C. audience I saw Boyhood with guffawed with smug laughter at the scene—what right thinking person would ever give a boy a rifle and the Good Book?

I longed for Mason to actually read the Bible, and not only because I’m a Christian. I just wanted the kid to come into contact with something, anything, that would turn him from a diffident and mumbling goth wallflower into a dynamic and engaging presence on screen. He could have been hit by the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, The Lord of the Flies, the Communist Manifesto, anything.  Anything to jump-start this endless, enervating, boring film.

So why the critical hype for Boyhood? Reviewers are not just praising this film, they are praying to it. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post is typical: “Filmed for a few days every year over 12 years, Boyhood breaks open a brand new genre: a fictional drama contoured and shaped by reality; a lightly scripted ensemble piece executed by both professional and non-professional actors; an experiment in time, narrative and cinematic practice that utterly transforms the boundaries of what film can look like and feel like and achieve.”

I think what we have here is an example of the Sideways syndrome. Sideways is a mediocre 2004 independent movie that became a hit when critics began gushing about it.  A.O. Scott in the New York Times had the courage to write that critics loved Sideways because the main character is a schlubby wine snob and critic. In others words, critics saw, and praised, not Sideways, but seeing themselves in Sideways.

Something similar may be going on with Boyhood. Movie critics identify with Mason’s social awkwardness, the liberalism of his biological parents, even the gender-bending when Mason lets a girl paint his nails. Ann Hornaday: “By the time Mason, now a deep-voiced teenager, affects an earring, blue nail polish and an artistic interest in photography, viewers get the feeling that he’s dodged at least most of the misogynist conditioning of a boy’s life.”

Yes, and he’s also missed the passion, and conflict, and girl-crazy adrenaline-rushed joy of being a boy. In a film that is so long it seems to take place in real time, Mason goes from being a cute six-year-old to a clueless and barely literate college student with no spiritual depth and an inability to understand or articulate the world around him—just  one more man-child to add to America’s supply. But then, he got off easy. At least he never saw that Bible again.



13 responses to ““Boyhood” and the End of Manhood

  1. “It’s clear from what passes for a script that Linklater doesn’t like Republicans. There are terribly dated jokes about George Bush and Sarah Palin, jokes that seem doubly weak now that we’ve had six years of Barack Obama. Then Mason’s step-grandparents give him a Bible and a rifle for his birthday. The liberal Washington, D.C. audience I saw Boyhood with guffawed with smug laughter at the scene—what right thinking person would ever give a boy a rifle and the Good Book?”

    The joke is on the audience, then. The movie is a snapshot of Texas, not of the larger caricatures of right and left. Yes, there is the angry Republican neighbor, but there was, immediately following, the dippy Kool-Aid drinking lefty.

    That you mistake your DC audience’s reaction for the full intent of Linklaeter’s scene… That speaks to the smugness of the audience, not the director. Yes, those are somewhat stereotypical gifts… But one thing I think many will miss in that scene is not just how straight the gift-givers played it, but also Mason – it was a very Southern touch to see a character we know or assume to have been raised liberal (obviously, he’s getting his first Bible at 15) and at least nominally disapprove of such things (a la your audience) – but he did not roll his eyes. He politely thanked them, without a hint of irony. The family sing-along later that evening I think underscores the sincerity of the connection between the “liberals” and “conservatives,” and speaks to truths about human nature that now seem to escape Washingtonians.

  2. When did you see this movie? Because I also saw it in DC (E Street theater, Aug. 2, an early Saturday evening) and they had the. exact. same. reaction. to the Bible and the gun gifts (and also to a scene of the students pledging allegiance to the Texas flag). When the gun happened, I had to restrain myself from asking aloud “why is that funny?” Only respect for the film and Linklater (I liked it more than the author did) prevented me from doing do.

    That said, I agree with the first commentator that this reaction is in no way a reflection on the film and how those moments are actually played in the text itself, quite the contrary. That very fact, however, means the laughter actually speaks worse of the Washington audience. And according to scattered reports on Twitter, this reaction is by no means unique to Washington.

  3. Linklater managed to coalesce a portrait of a small Texas town before in Bernie without “attacking” those you identify with politically. Most of the flaws of Boyhood you see are projections/

  4. Let me begin by saying that I have lived in Texas all my life. I was born and grew up in Houston, went to school in Austin and currently live in Dallas. The State of Texas and her people have contributed much to my identity. Furthermore, I am a Christian and politically lean towards the right, so I identify with the author of this review in at least a few ways, and certainly in the most important ways (i.e., beliefs in God, humanity and how the two interact with one another). Now that those things are out of the way . . .

    I saw the film this past weekend. It is my opinion that the author has grossly misrepresented the film and, in the process, has contradicted himself. In my opinion, the movie was nothing short of greatness.

    First, the author complains that in this film “nothing really happens.” Two paragraphs later, he briefly summarizes the many things that happen in the movie: “Mason deals with three bad fathers, a mother with very bad judgment, and a sister who’s just kind of there. Also: changing schools, moves, his first beer and girlfriend, evil jocks, and the other usual teenage rituals in postmodern America.” For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, you should know that the author didn’t learn about these happenings because a title slide appeared on the screen giving updates. Indeed, the author learned about bad fathers, bad judgment, moving, drinking, romance and “other teenage rituals” because these are all experienced by the characters in the film. To be clear, there was a script, there were actors and through the scenes filmed, we learn about all that happened to the cast. So, if we’re honest, plenty of things happen in the movie.

    Second, the author’s litmus test for adulthood (A boy isn’t an adult if he “hasn’t been in a war, joined a band, gone on the road, or been in a fight”) is ludicrous. This comment doesn’t really pertain to the film as much as it is an attempt to establish that the author’s perspective on adulthood is skewed, at best. If his perspective on adulthood is skewed, there can’t be much hope of a successful critique of a coming of age film.

    Third, the author mentions that despite Mason meeting, kissing and drinking (again, things do happen in this film), nothing seems to excite him. The author leaves out that Mason becomes enthralled with his artwork. How could the author claim that Mason does not fall in love with the world when, for example, the character stops at gas stations in the middle of nowhere to take pictures of the life around him?

    I feel like I could go on and on. The jokes in some scenes are dated because they took place during a previous time. They are dated on purpose. They were filmed when the jokes were original. Perhaps the jokes are weak now, but they weren’t then. One cannot fault the film because of the ignorance of an audience. The author should be thanking Linklater for demonstrating to the DC audience that even today, boys in Texas receive guns as presents, learn how to shoot, and actually like it (even the progressives).

    To sum up: Perhaps the author is suffering from the same syndrome to which he accuses other critics of falling victim: Sideways Syndrome. Except this author is suffering from this syndrome in reverse. Instead of praising the film because it presents a character with whom he can identify and praise, the author of this article resents the film because he does not see himself in Boyhood. His pride is evident, nonetheless. The film doesn’t have to be about the viewer. Perhaps, Linklater is presenting some of his own story, which is why the main character is less bravado and more artistic.

    Personally, there were many things that I loved about the film, even though my life and Mason’s life could not have been more different. I come from a stable family, I have a firm belief in God, and didn’t experience many of the things that happened to Mason (again, plenty of things happen in this film). Still, I loved this movie. A lot. I won’t pray to it, but I will praise it for being an honest depiction of what growing up is like in our society and in Texas culture. Linklater has made some great movies, but Boyhood is his finest.

    1. This is spot on. Mark Judge can’t really seem to suspend his own skewed worldview to consider how others live and approach the world, especially in light of his other writings.

  5. Mr. Judge, without reference to your other criticisms, I think you are being a little harsh on the character of Mason. He certainly was not “barely literate college student”: We saw him carrying the Vonnegut book (it was Breakfast of Champions, not Slaughterhouse Five). Perhaps he read Vonnegut because it was a school assignment and he had no choice . . . but there is no indication of that. Moreover, I don’t agree that he has “an inability to understand or articulate the world around him,” because there is more than one scene in which Mason ruminates about the world around him, and he certain seems interested in the philosophical proposition at the end of the movie that “moments seize us” not the other way around. And it seemed evident to me Mason wasn’t merely BS’ing to score points with the girl. Granted, he’s no Bertrand Russell, but what 18-year-old boy is? Finally, having lived in Texas, it was refreshing to me to see Mason defy the measurement of men in the Lone Star state — he became a man without the need for cowboy hats or playing football.

  6. “Conservative” is NOT a word I would use to describe the Obama loving “hipster college type” parents of the kids. The fact that much of this film is leaning so far left that it can stand up to American audiences shows why American sniper is doing far better.

  7. Someone who thinks that Mason was given a rifle for his birthday both wasn’t paying much attention to the movie and isn’t very familiar with guns. It was a 20-gauge shotgun, and it was not only described in detail but the shooting scene that came later was clearly a scene only possible with a shotgun.

    p.s. – I thought that the movie was quite fair to liberals and conservatives. Umbrage is a bit of a Roshach test…are you going to be more offended at the portrayal of overly strict ‘conservative’ fathers or sloppy ‘liberal’ fathers who don’t get a job? Do you consider the problematic alcoholic stepfather a typical conservative rich white guy or typical liberal college professor? Does it bug you more when a conservative father figure talks a little too much about masculinity or when a liberal father figure politically indoctrinates his children? And are you more likely to notice the grandparents’ gifts are slightly out-of-touch, or that they are well-meaning and loving?

    It would pay to notice that the grandparents are the most openly conservative characters in the entire movie, and also the most loving and kindly portrayed, completely accepting of their new blended family and without visible character defects.

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