Be Cool Like I Used To Be: A Nervous Father's Guide To Boyhood

The main thing that qualifies me to write about Richard Linklater's Boyhood from a panicked new-ish father's perspective is that I had to wait three weeks to see Boyhood even after all the rapturous reviews came out, on account of having fled New York City in terror a couple years ago so I wouldn't have to raise my kids in a walk-in closet, which means I had to wait for the movie to schlep its way to the unwashed Midwest, and then make the usual byzantine babysitting arrangements to go see it—no joke in this case, given that it's, like, three hours long. But I'm not complaining, as the film's ultimate message to parents is: Stop complaining.

Boyhood is the art-house version of those maddening Pinterest boards full of vaguely accusatory inspirational slogans for young, exhausted parents: "The days are long but the years are short," or especially "You are not managing an inconvenience; you are raising a human being." Which is not an insult: It's definitely the best movie I've seen in a theater in 2014. (The other one was Snowpiercer.) My two sons (three and 10 months) fall outside the movie's range (which tracks young Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, across 12 years, from ages six to 18), but for me it still delivered its intended half-sweet, half-devastating payload: Holy shit, my kids are one day going to be full-blown adults, and I will have a substantial influence on what they're like, for good or ill. Whether it's the best movie ever made, I feel unqualified to say (especially lately), but I'll say this: It made me want to be a better father. (Snowpiercer did not, particularly.)

The unadvertised part of Boyhood's appeal is that it's actually a movie about parenthood. As such, I found myself approaching it as a parenting guide, What to Do or, more often, What Not to Do, basically letter-grading every adult's interactions with Mason. Which got complicated in a hurry: There's only one obvious A (heroic often-single mom Patricia Arquette, as much the star here as anyone, or at least she definitely does the most Acting) and one outright F (drunk, abusive asshole stepfather Bill).

But even though I've never smashed dishes at the dinner table (Boyhood's one melodramatic, plot-driving, and thus remotely movie-seeming moment), Asshole Bill still triggered one tiny shiver of half-recognition. The earlier scene where he coarsely chastises his own young son for using electronics at the dinner table (a Tamagotchi, heh)—I was half on Bill's side there, minus the coarseness. But is it a slippery slope from that to Joyless Chore Militarism to sending your kid in to cash your $500 check at the liquor store (nice crazed handwriting) to tearing up the dining room and impotently yelling, "I hate squash"?

[Just rewatched that trailer and teared up, Jesus.]

Naturally, Boyhood is dominated by Mason's biological father, Mason Sr., played by Ethan Hawke as a likable, jovial deadbeat fuckup who only drops in periodically to do the most Dad Rock things possible before evaporating again. (He drags Mason Jr. and his older sister to see Roger Clemens pitch for the Astros, praises Wilco's Sky Blue Sky at length, attempts to have The Safe-Sex Talk in a bowling alley, etc.) "I wasn't the least bit concerned with the state of your soul," he cheerfully tells his kids later in the film, when asked if he'd ever considered baptizing them, and it stings, even though by then his redemption narrative is well underway. (He remarries into a bible-thumping family, sires another kid to presumably Do It Right This Time, and swaps his bitchin' GTO for a minivan.)

It's the details that get you with Mason Sr., with everyone. His early excuse for never being around is that he's working in Alaska, which is almost definitely a euphemism; when his kids directly ask what he did there, he replies with the note-perfectly vague and lame "I worked on a boat for awhile—tried to write some music." He's easy to feel superior to, but across a decade-plus he grows up every bit as much as his son does: "Be cool like I used to be," is his climactic piece of advice, and it's hard to avoid the fact that he becomes a better father in direct proportion to his rising uncoolness. He made me want to be an even worse hipster.

Young Mason is a blank for a goodly portion of the movie—it can feel as though he doesn't have any dialogue at all until he's haranguing his high school girlfriend about his (apparently autobiographical) plan to quit Facebook. Coltrane does his best acting during the bowling alley safe-sex talk, actually; though he's a middle-schooler then, and the cringeworthy advice is directed at his sister, Mason gets in a few operatic eyebrow-raises, and it's his one-word, alarmingly deep-voiced reply to a question from his father—"Sometimes"—that finally drove home for me that this is the same kid, and he's getting older, and I'm most likely gonna bust out crying before this is all over.

It's Mason's high school years where things get really confusing from a parental-handbook perspective. He gets the same basic and maybe inevitable speech—Get Your Head Out of Your Ass—multiple times, always from a different person, always poised on the knife edge between Heartfelt Advice and Corny Lecturing. It's possible the latter is the only effective delivery system for the former.

There's the photography teacher, peeved that Mason's lurking in the darkroom instead of dutiful cataloging his digital files (ha), who is not wrong when he cautions that aloof artistes rarely fare as well as rule-following dullards. And there's the manager of the greasy spoon where Mason works, who provides probably the single strangest moment in the movie when he harangues his charge for goofing off: It's a familiar scene (one in which we're always rightly meant to sympathize with the minimum-wage drone), and the manager is played as a nervous, dopey simp, but he nonetheless dangles a promotion (fry cook) with gentle but expert precision, and thus gets invited later to Mason's graduation party to give another earnest/uncomfortable speech. The key in both those cases may be whether, if you watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High today, you'd find yourself sympathizing with Jeff Spicoli or Mr. Hand.

But the crux of the movie for me is the final confrontation between Mason and his second failed stepfather, Jim, introduced in the most sympathetic way possible (as a veteran back from Afghanistan), but tilting at least slightly in Asshole Bill's direction as the Great Recession hits and the term "house poor" pops up. You wince when Jim wearily cracks open a beer at the dinner table and smirks at Mason's earring and nail polish, but you feel for the guy later when he's out on the porch late at night, long past his stepson's curfew, waiting for the brat to come home; you don't disagree with his angry overall message (the family's struggling, and you're not helping), even when Jim stands up semi-menacingly after Mason mouths off in response, even when in the act of standing up it sounds as though Jim has knocked over a comically large number of beer cans.

The next moment is shattering: Mason disappears into the house with an eye-rolling harrumph, and Jim defeatedly turns back to his chair, revealing the word "Corrections" emblazoned on the back of his shirt, and you realize of course that the poor guy probably didn't dream of being a prison guard when he was growing up himself, but this is What It Takes, what it means to be a father and raise a family, however you define "family," even if it's still ultimately not enough. We never see Jim again.

There's no way to prepare for this movie's accumulated weight: the silent, inexorable, crushing way time passes, and the reality that the stuff you do (or don't do) that has the biggest effect on your kids can be so subtle, subconscious, unmemorable, and outright mundane that a "normal" movie would never waste precious time depicting it at all. (The only "normal" aspect of Boyhood at all is the soundtrack, which leans heavily on then-current pop songs to telegraph what year it's supposed to be, from Gnarls Barkley to Soulja Boy to Vampire Weekend; all told, it's the story of how we as a culture got from Coldplay to Arcade Fire.) All those rapturous reviews seem to settle finally on the word "true," that this is among the least movie-like and most lifelike movies ever made. It is beyond corny to tell you that I drove home afterward and hugged my kids a little tighter, and resolved not to feel sorry for myself when I was furtively comforting a screaming, feverish 10-month-old hours later. But both those things are true, too.


Rob Harvilla is Deadspin's culture editor. Yes, there is one. He's on Twitter.

Image by Tara Jacoby.

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