Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood has been widely praised for its innovative approach and its ability to handle a sweeping topic (growing up) largely without sentimentality. The movie is filmed over the course of 12 years, using the same cast and whatever cultural backdrop was handy in Texas at the annual time of filming. For instance, when the Harry Potter film came out, the children of Boyhood were at the right age to be interested, so in the film they went to see Harry Potter. The film is as notable for what it doesn’t show as for what it shows. We see one week each year in the lives of Linklater’s film family. We see significant events (such as the mother—played by Patricia Arquette—taking her children and leaving an abusive husband), but we don’t see how anything resolves. We simply see how the family looks the following year.
When I first watched the film, I wondered at the title, given the fact that the film follows the whole family. But no, we truly do see more of young Mason’s life, hear more of his words and see more of his pondering face. Indeed, the “universality” touted by reviewers likely comes from the fact that we’ve all been socially conditioned to think of broad constructs such as “growing up” and “the meaning of life” from the perspective of middle-class white boys. The film is not universal, and succeeds because it is so specifically situated in time and place and family. (Wouldn’t it have been truly great if Linklater took two weeks per year and devoted one to the sister and one to the brother in the film? His creation dedicated to “girlhood” would have had many of the same scenes as Boyhood, but I believe it would have been viewed as far less universal and opened some amazing discussions on gendered living. Perhaps he has done this and we simply don’t know it yet. Here’s hoping.)
So, when I say in my title that this film is also about motherhood, I don’t mean that it is really about the whole family. I mean that the mother’s decisions are the ones creating a narrative arc in a film about a boy. And as women’s decisions and contributions are often rendered invisible in the fabric of culture, so, too, critics seem to see only that the mother made a few “bad decisions” about husbands. Her decisions were far more complex than that. That’s not to say that she wound up finding meaning in her life at the close of the film, but that hers were the decisions that shaped the boyhood in question.
Childhood is not an individual journey, after all. The condition of our birth influences so much right from the start. To put it bluntly, there can be no boyhood without first a mother. And every mother has a social position and makes immediate decisions about her child. In this film, her choices significantly frame the type of boyhood Mason has. First, she chooses active parenting over the drop-in parenting the kids’ father provides. She makes a home where they have space for their interests and a clear focus on succeeding in school. Then she decides to move nearer her mother and return to university so that she can get different employment to better provide for her children.
Some movie-goers wondered why the mother didn’t get her children out of the household with the abusive stepfather even sooner. But again, isn’t it interesting that the active decisions in the film are being made by the mother, yet she is framed only as a failure? We do not immediately see her as the one who provided the entire structure for the “boyhood” to unfold. She grapples with real decisions women make for themselves and their children—not perfectly, by any means, but then the circumstances in which women make decisions are not fair, either. We see the real anger her children offer for her decision to uproot their lives on a few occasions.
The ethereal beauty of the film lies in the feeling of sort of floating along with Mason as he grows up. There is no one scene that could be removed from the film that would render the story senseless, because from the perspective of young Mason there is no story. It’s just life happening.
Take out the structural influence of the mother, however, and Linklater would have had a more difficult to story to tell. The one-week-a-year snapshots may not have made nearly as much sense if the father had taken the role of primary parent, or if the children had entered the foster care system. The glue—motherhood—is a nearly invisible structural feature in the film. That’s precisely because the decisions and sacrifices and structural constraints that scaffold women’s lives are also largely unconsidered, both in families and politically.
Women’s circumstances still largely define children’s circumstances. A deeper analysis of what we’ve rendered invisible in family life, and in this film, can become a rich source of discussion.