Some Thoughts on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Some Thoughts on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Oh, the power of film. I say that often, but it truly is my favorite genre. Its power to encourage empathy is, in my opinion, unparalleled. And that makes it such a powerful tool for inviting people to think differently, as I often say of the Arts in general.

The film first spoke to me as an educator. As an elementary student, Mason was disruptive, seemingly disrespectful, and sometimes non-compliant. As a teacher, having taught middle school for several years, I know how frustrating that student…that boy…can be. How many times have I said to myself, “why can’t he just do what the other more cooperative students are doing?” Or “Why can’t he just be more like the girls?”

The Washington Post recently carried a piece by Jennifer Fink about her frustrations related to her son’s experiences in school. Yes, I know there are two sides to this story. Yes, I know there are fair expectations for boys to behave respectfully. I also know that we as educators are not doing all we can do to explore innovative options for engaging boys in a classroom setting.

The film then spoke to me as…a boy. First, a disclaimer. For whatever reason, I was wired in such a way that I was able to follow the rules and comply with the requests of most people in leadership over me. Plenty of boys are able to be people pleasers. However, plenty are not. Yet, they are not dissimilar to the people pleasers; just wired differently. They are not all “bad” kids or even completely disrespectful. We’ve not even touched on the aftershocks of a negative home life.

I often hear interviews with thought leaders, comedians, CEOs, entertainers, etc. for whom school was a terrible experience because they were unable to comply with the system. What do we as educators do with this? I am a huge fan (perhaps even an addict) of order. I don’t do chaos. In a large setting like a choral rehearsal there are positive things about that. However, in education more broadly, I admit that I struggle to differentiate and meet the needs of seemingly disrespectful boys.

There are teacher leaders who excel in this area. I would ask that you find ways to share your craft knowledge with the rest of the field. Lately I’ve been interested in work related to providing innovative leadership options for teachers who remain in the classroom. Here’s a great example. Get on social media and engage on the topic of boys in the classroom.

I thought it was interesting that Linklater decided to explore the fact that most boys are at some point called “gay” or “faggot.” He chose to make Mason a boy whose sister was a better athlete than he was. He then chose to make Mason’s primary interest the Arts, specifically photography. Interestingly though, he gave us no contextual reason to conclude that Mason was actually gay. Completely independent of sexual preference or gender identity, most boys have been on the receiving end of one of these labels simply by being in a setting where they were somehow less masculine than others in the room at the time. In the South especially, if a boy is not an athlete or is interested in the Arts, the likelihood that he will be labeled as “gay” at some point is extremely high.

As powerful as Linklater’s work is in Boyhood, there are cultural limitations to this kind of work. It would be impossible to tell such a story in a way that would resonate across a variety of cultural lines. So much of what made the film work was dependent upon keeping some of the following categories consistent: socioeconomic status, race, religious affiliation, educational setting, geography, gender roles, and parental dynamics. These things vary greatly across cultural lines, even within the United States. However, the complexities of boyhood and manhood are no less apparent across a variety of cultures. Is it possible that Linklater’s work could inspire similarly honest work in other cultural contexts?

“I just thought there would be more.” Mason’s mother delivered this line toward the end of the film and it was pow-er-ful. This line represented all the remaining ways the film impacted me: as a human, a father, and a husband.

Husband

I loved the irony that Mason’s father, originally introduced as kind of a loser, ended up being somewhat of a hero while the two husbands, originally introduced as heroes, ended up being complete losers. Do with that what you will.   The person you marry is not the same person you’ll be with ten years later. Marriage is a journey of change, forgiveness, growth, and…forgiveness.

Father

Linklater did not defend the absence of Mason’s father. He even gave him a line complementing the mother’s work raising Mason. Having said that, Mason’s father brought nothing to the table other than relationship, but he was the hero, arguably more so than the mother. Again, an absent father is not the optimal choice, but what a powerful statement that even periodic visits from a father with whom there is authentic relationship can be redemptive.

Human

It is part of the human condition to ask questions like “What is life about?” and to make statements like “I just thought there would be more.” Artfully, Linklater waited until we were prepared to digest all that went into this statement for Mason’s mother. So when she said it, I said it right along with her!

In closing, I’ll admit that the acting was subpar. But come on, Linklater had to hire children under ten for a 12-year project that would span across the complex teen years. The fact that he even wrapped up the project is amazing to me. Thanks Richard Linklater for the visionary work that went into making this film happen.

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