A fight, an intense, full-throat shout fest, one of those hormone fueled rebellions that plagued many of our teenage years, inducing us into a blind rage that nothing else seemed important to us than the subject matter at hand, and which, after a few years of growing up, puts one in a position to be ashamed of all those pointless conflicts and teenage angst, regretful of those foolish words one once proudly exclaimed in order to hurt the other person whom we are having a clash of ideals with. The other person is my dad. And that was 6 years ago.
Like most of the things that happened in my teenage years, all that is left are fuzzy trails of indefinable haze, beguiling in its inscrutability. But what I do remember is what happened after the fight. I was sitting on the bed, contemplating what has just happened, basking myself in a mixture of emotions, barraged by guilt, shame, anger at myself, and sadness, when my dad, after softly knocking on my door, came in and sat at the edge of the bed. He put a tough and calloused hand, roughened by decades of hard work and hard times, on my shoulder, and with a voice so frail that it appears as if my father has just aged beyond recognition, slowly confessed to me that, “I’m still learning how to be a parent, because when we had you, and once you were born, we don’t know what to do, and nobody taught us what to do, the same way that every parent has ever felt. So, we are still learning.”
Those words haunt me, in a way that every hurtful confession hurts and haunts people. Whenever I sat alone at a coffee shop, or lie on a bed on a sleepless night, those words echo about in my mind. I wonder what my father had felt when he decided to come into my room and sit on my bed, to tell me those words. What must have happened to elicit such an emotional response in order for one to strip down all defenses and to face another, even one’s own son, in such stark frailty? We are all learning: that’s one fact I have always known to be true, but always have difficulty in acknowledging, because to acknowledge it amounts to an act of self-mutilation, of confessing my inherent inability to know everything, and that only time can tell everything as it slowly unfurls its never-ending curtains.
In the same way, “Boyhood” hammers me on my head with the same amount of emotional honesty, but with Richard Linklater’s signature quiet and eloquent simplicity (see his previous “Before Trilogy”, a superb showcase of powerhouse film making). Countless scenes depict simple events, but with reverberating emotions; each and every attempt to quantify and catalog it is an attempt at futility, as the scenes spilled out of its borders, refusing to stay at being preconceived notions and predefined ideas; and like a rock thrown into a peaceful pond, what is once disturbed can never stay the same, as the ripples spread and echo to the edges of our every thought, resonating deep in the depths of our soul, until we are changed, forever.
Consider one of its scenes where Mason Jr. is brought by his father (Ethan Hawke, superb in many ways) to a friend’s rock stage after a high school graduation party. After a brief exchange, the father proceeded to greet the friend on stage, whereby the musician simply noted with a “Wow… Unbelievable.” at Mason Jr.’s growth spurt, unimaginable during his youth, but which unfolds ever so slowly and naturally that we never question time’s cruelty, and beauty, until we put the two images of the same people at different timelines together and compare them. In some way, I think it is especially wise of Linklater in that he never used timelines to establish the date at which the sequence is filmed (the film took 12 years to film and document). How many of us ever took note carefully of how much time has passed since the last time we took notice of it? I always am annoyed by the surprising remark of my relatives who noted my growth since my childhood, as if there is nothing else worth noting about. “Time flies,” they always said, and I can agree with them, now that I have my share of growing up. Indeed, time flies, and everything becomes a blur as we move along in life; last time we are still discussing which character in Digimon or Dragon-Ball or Gundam is the most powerful, and the next time before we know it, we are discussing sex, and drugs, and politics. Ten years ago, we wore everything our parents bought us; ten years later, we rebel by using our choice of fashion: earpiercings, tattoos, bleached hair, baggy jeans.
And of course, not everyone develops the tendency to rebel to such an extreme, some just… goes along with it, lay low, wing through the obstacles of life, or become the person everyone wants them to be. Andrew Solomon, wrote at the start of his remarkable book, “Far From the Tree”, that “There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production… In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own… We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult…” And it is, to a certain extent, quite true, that through the unity of sperm and ovum, we leave our genes to posterity, so that, in an abstract way, we can be immortal. But is it only true in a biological sense? Do some of us not also try and imprint ourselves on others, so that through our actions and behaviors, we can inspire others to do the same, and in some strange way, we can be immortal through what others learned from us?
Take Mason Sr. (Jr.’s father), who constantly taught Mason Jr. who to vote for, how to chase girls, how to maintain a relationship, and what is most important in life (rock & roll, high-flying life style). And when he brought Jr. to a family reunion with his grandparents, they in turn try to teach him how to hunt, how to use a gun, how to be a good Christian, how to be a man. The photography teacher in high school even tried to teach him “the” definition of art (if there ever is such a thing) from his point of view. Mason Jr.’s girlfriend wanted him to be less gloomy. There is even a scene in which two senior students took Mason Jr. and a few of his friends to a night out, after which they proceeded to persuade the few minor ages to drink beer, to fuck “whores”, to use crude language, as if all there is to achieve in life is these few things, and if one fails in any of these dimensions, one is a penis wrinkle, a cum gum, a bitch, or a fag. Almost everyone around Mason Jr. tries to present a sort of model behavior so that he can emulate them in turn, and this is why I brought up the point about “learning” at the start of this article, because in some ways, all of us are learning, and we keep on learning, be it good or bad stuff, from others and from our environment. At some point, the film even generously included the psychological concepts on “Pavlovian Conditioning” and “Bowlby’s Attachment Theory”, all of which has considerable influence on our understanding of how we learn from our parents, our guardians, and our surroundings, and how our behaviors in turn influence others when the time has come for us to take on these aforementioned roles (despite recent scientific research constantly refuting and revising their theories, especially Bowlby’s more psychoanalytically oriented teachings).
Gender roles, parental roles, biased expectations, all of which are gained through these interactions with the outside world, but the outcome is entirely uncertain, as most things in life are. Who is to say that a child who has a string of “drunken assholes” as father figures (as Mason Jr. has), is to become, someday, a drunken asshole himself? Maybe he will instead build up a resistance towards such a negative influence and become a responsible adult himself, who knows? Maybe it is us who seizes the quality, instead of the quality seizing us. And like my dad, maybe it is he who seizes the wisdom from my grandparents, and in turn, made me more likely to seize his better qualities. Rest assured, this is not to deny the powerful influence our environment has on us, but surely, we do have some (minuscule) chance at being defiant to it, don’t we?
And of course, it is to be expected from Linklater that he doesn’t provide any semblance of an answer towards all the questions that he implied in his movie. He documents, instead of plots, and there is not a shred of emotional manipulation one can detect from this movie; instead, there is honesty, loads of it, that one can plunge and reminisce in the pain and the myriad of short-lived but full-blown happiness that the nostalgia of our childhood brings along, as one is transported into earlier days, where everything seems to us simpler and more wonderful than ever. Where we don’t have to worry about the days that lie before us, and where expectations are so simple and vague that disappointments rarely last longer than a day. In one of the closing scenes of this movie, the mother of Mason Jr. exclaims softly that, “I just thought there would be more…” after realizing that her series of so called “milestones” has just been achieved by sending Mason Jr. and his sister off to college, and that there is nothing more to be achieved, since all that is left now is an empty nest. There is a quiet desperation in her voice, and a fragility that is all the more familiar to my ears since I once heard it in my father’s voice, that 6 years ago, on a gloomy evening, after a big fight. It is as if my father was silently confessing again by the side of my ears, “I thought there would be more to it than this, instead, all the best I can hope for is to admit my ignorance, and to proceed in learning more”.
To me, there is nothing more powerful and more wise in this film than a scene where Mason Jr. asks his father, “So, what’s the point? … Of everything?” And his father proceeds to answer, “Everything? (Chuckles) I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, we are all just winging it, you know?” The refusal to answer this question of enormous significance with a simplistic answer is what I admire about this film, despite many criticisms of its lack of a coherent plot, or its depressing atmosphere, or its lack of solutions, or its span of filming of 12 years as the sole gimmick that landed its Oscar nomination. Despite these legitimate criticisms, the film’s simplicity, honesty and natural flow is what draws me to it, creating deep fissures within me, that I can’t wait to see how the lives of all these characters will unfold, and in what direction. That, to me, is a victory on behalf of “Boyhood”, in that it creates a documentary of life itself, a celebration of time’s uncertainty and a hymn of peoples’ infinite mutability, and how, despite our geographical and ethnic differences, there is a similarity that no other differences can diminish; that growing up in some ways sucks as we throw away our childishness to take hold of the ever-dreaded responsibilities; and how each and every moment of life is not only a disparate moment of unusual fleetingness, but how it can seize us, and how it can stay constant at the never-ending present. And who knows, maybe we will learn at the end of our journey about what the whole point of everything is.
Well, who knows? After all, we are just winging it.
**Featured header image is adapted from blogs-images.forbes.com