American Millennial

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
“American Millennial”
A Review of Boyhood by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating, Three Reels

            Boyhood is a bold experiment in the medium of film, shot in 39 days but over 12 years allowing the young boy protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) to age naturally along with his mother, father, sister, and everyone else. The effect is truly wonderful, creating an unprecedented sense of realism. Director Richard Linklater wanders in and out of Mason’s life at an unhurried pace for nearly three hours allowing the audience to see the hallmark moments of an entire childhood. Mason becomes an adult but is really a man?
            This story is not only about Mason but 21st century America in its infancy, hitting important cultural landmarks like Forrest Gump without the chocolates. There’s Saturday morning cartoons, Halo, war in Iraq, and Mason’s father instructing him to steal McCain-Palin signs from unsuspecting conservative lawns. The boy passively observes these events as a stand-in for the audience, rarely engaging the world in any meaningful way or even speaking full sentences until the latter part of the film. He is spitting image of the Millennial generation, a child of divorced parents living with his single mother and one opposite-sex sibling. His mom complains about money problems but always seems to have a nice houses full of needless knick-knacks. Right from the first scene, Mason is introduced to things beyond his maturity level. His eight year older sister (Lorelei Linklater) wakes him up by dancing suggestively to “Oops I did it Again.” He contemplates a dead bird, moves around constantly, is bullied in school, discovers pornography, and sits through an extremely awkward conversation about contraception with his sister. His only relaxing moments come from bi-weekly visits with his real father Mason Sr. (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke). They go on camping trips, frequent music venues, and talk about life. “What kind of man do you want to be?” his father asks. Mason isn’t sure, and, while he gets plenty of advice, life doesn’t seem to be giving him any answers.
            The primary reason Mason is so rudderless is the poor example of his parents. They are both basically good people who love their children yet are divorced because…well, they just don’t “fit.” Growing up primarily with his mother, he has to endure two alcoholic stepfathers, one of which is violently abusive. His mother is attracted to men who seem worldly and smart but gives little thought to their parenting skills, even cooperating with their poor actions. If Mason has no positive models, at least he has plenty of negative ones. Yet his own relationships unfortunately mirror these issues. Mason falls in love way too quickly and just as quickly breaks up when things get troublesome rather than working out problems.
            Early on, Mason shows an intense interest in fantasy, primarily through the Harry Potter series. Late one night, he asks his father if magic exists. “Well, I don’t know about magic, but what about the blue whale? What if I told you there was a giant sea creature that had a heart the size of a car? You would think that was magical,” he father grins. Mason isn’t convinced. “So there are no elves and stuff.” “No,” his father replies. “There are no elves.” This is about as close Boyhood comes to a genuine conversation about religion; the disappointment Mason feels resounds through his generation. As theologian Peter Kreeft observes, “we have traded the wine of the gospel for the water of psychobabble.” It’s difficult for Catholics to imagine a childhood devoid of religion, but this is reality for many kids. After several years, Mason Sr. marries a wonderful woman from the deep South. On his sixteenth birthday, Mason’s new stepgrandparents give him a red-letter Bible, a Sunday suit, and the family shotgun. Mason’s father and the director treat them respectfully but with typical leftist amusement. Despite this, they are the only normal and happy couple in the whole film, having found the meaning of life that eludes everyone else. The great tragedy of Boyhood will not be noticed by most – Mason has a religious vocation. In high school, he finds his passion in photography. He is deeply emphatic and sensitive, observing life with awe and admiration, and loves spiritual matters, wanting to find the deepest answers of life. Yet no one has given him a language or path to pursue this need. Hopefully, Mason will one day open that dusty Bible and find his true calling.
          Many times throughout the film, important questions are raised but few are ever really explored. Mason is a smart kid but not driven to really do anything. He finally concludes that life simply happens; a person just deals with it as best he can. But what do the events in a childhood mean? How do they shape him? Is he now the man he is meant to be? He isn’t sure and neither is the film. Despite the general murkiness, Boyhood is an incredibly compelling story told in an amazing manner. This is, after all, just one snippet in Mason’s life. His journey continues and maybe one day it will all make sense.  

 This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on October 2nd, 2014.