Mason is 6 years old and a starry-eyed dreamer. He’s the kind of kid who does his homework—at his single mom’s prompting—but then leaves it forgotten and stuffed in the bottom of his backpack because, well, the teacher never asked for it. Besides, he was kinda busy staring out the classroom window.
Mason’s sister, Sam, is nothing like her distracted younger brother. She’s a troublemaking spitball who’s ready to pounce on her sibling—punching, pillow fighting, tickling and teasing. And then she spouts a fountain of fake tears if Mom happens to walk in.
Mom (Olivia) takes their squabbles in stride. But she has some issues of her own that she needs to work through.
For one thing, she needs to get a better foothold on life. Maybe take a college class or two. The bills are eating her alive. And for another, she’s got horrible taste in men. Or maybe I should put things this way: She has the horrible habit of choosing nasty guys who hop in and out of her bed while masquerading as men.
That goes for the kids’ dad, too. He’s up working somewhere in Alaska, she thinks. But since she’s had no communication and no alimony payments sent her way for a while, well …
Maybe if she and the kids move to Houston, they can get something going. Maybe a year from now they’ll have gotten a new start as a family. They’ll be a little older. A little wiser. Maybe?
But what about the year after that? And the year after that? What will time bring as the years unfold?
She’ll just have to wait and see. And so will we.
As people come and go in Mason’s and Sam’s lives—from stepdads to teachers to neighborhood friends—the one relationship that remains positive for them is the one with their otherwise deadbeat dad, Mason Sr. He and their mother can’t seem to remain in the same room together for long, but he consistently tries to stay connected and be a loving dad. He gives them advice based on his own experiences and stumbles, plays with them, creates bonding experiences and repeatedly voices his love for them.
That kind of attention changes them. And Dad also appears changed by their interactions. He totally realigns his vagabond life, eventually remarrying and starting a new family. Divorce and remarriage aren’t in life’s positive column, of course, but he’s only half joking when he says to his son, “[I’ve turned into the] boring, castrated guy that your mom probably wanted 15 or 20 years ago.” He thanks his former wife for working so hard to raise the kids.
Olivia has her moments of bootstrap pulling as well. She takes college courses and eventually earns the teaching degree she’s coveted. And her own self-betterment inspires her to encourage a Mexican immigrant worker to go to school, get a degree and make something of himself. Years later, that same young man—now a restaurant manager—comes over to thank her for the push.
The only Christians we meet—the parents of Mason Sr.’s second wife—are depicted as a cartoonish joke of a pair who mindlessly cling to their Bibles and guns. In fact, for Mason’s 15th birthday they give him a Holy Bible and the family shotgun. That Sunday Mason and Sam are forced to “suffer” through a church service with them (where we hear the pastor preach, “Blessed are they who can believe without seeing”).
After all this “church stuff,” Sam asks her dad, “You’re not becoming one of those God people, are you?” Dad assures her he’s not.
A younger Mason, who’s a big fan of the Harry Potter books, asks his father if there is any real magic, like elves, in the world. Dad says no, but suggests that describing a whale to someone who’s never seen one would sound just as magical. School kids are told to write an essay on “gods and goddesses.”
Both Olivia and Mason Sr. have very casual attitudes about their out-of-wedlock sex lives. We don’t see either of them in bed with a partner, but neither of them keep their multiple relationships from their kids. Dad does talk to both Sam and Mason about avoiding the “mistake” he and their mom fell into when their teen “make-up” sex turned into pregnancy. He tells Sam (in a lengthy discussion) to avoid pregnancy through either abstinence or the use of condoms. Years later, though, Mason Sr. and his brother crudely joke with 18-year-old Mason about the sexual adventures college life will provide.
At age 8, Mason and his friend (and the camera) ogle the partially clothed breasts of models in a lingerie catalogue. And a little later we see the boys, older now, checking out an online porn site. (We don’t see the screen.)
Several high school girls talk about one of their teachers being a lesbian. Some senior boys accuse an 8th grader of being gay because he hasn’t yet had sex. They go on to crudely recount the story of a girl having a night of sex with them and a string of other guys. Mason and a girl joke about going on a date—and she promises him oral sex. Sam’s college roommate catches an older Mason and his girlfriend naked in Sam’s dorm room bed. (They’re covered by a sheet.) Mason and a couple of different girls kiss. Several women, including Olivia, display quantities of cleavage.
Bill, Olivia’s second husband, is an angry drunk who lashes out and smashes glasses at the dinner table. He’s an abusive brute, beating Olivia (we see her crying afterward, lying on the garage floor) and (it’s implied) manhandling his cowering kids. The man puts Mason, Sam and their two stepsiblings in extreme danger while recklessly driving under the influence.
Olivia’s third husband is a heavy drinker too. He moves threateningly toward Mason after the teen boy comes home after curfew. Drunken teen boys break boards and throw saw blades at a construction site. Two bullies approach Mason and shove him around in a school bathroom.
About 40 f-words and 20 s-words join a half-dozen or so uses each of “h—,” “a–,” “d–n” and “b–ch.” God’s and Jesus’ names are misused close to 10 times, God’s getting combined with “d–n” nearly half the time. Teen boys make crude comments about vaginas and “p—.”
Wine, beer and hard liquor flow freely at every party and gathering—from graduation celebrations to casual get-togethers. All of Olivia’s husbands or boyfriends generally have an open beer or a mixed drink in hand whenever we see them. Closet drunk Bill hides his booze away for most of their short marriage. He sends a young Mason into a liquor store to cash a check for him.
That easygoing tone toward alcohol quickly carries over to both Mason and Sam. Mason drinks beer with some older boys when he’s in 8th grade. And from there he and his partying friends graduate to regularly downing beer and the harder stuff too. Jell-O shots and marijuana soon follow. Mason comes home on his 15th birthday after smoking a joint and drinking, and his tipsy mom laughs the substance abuse off as youthful indiscretion.
A college girl gives 18-year-old Mason some kind of drug-laced confection that he pops in his mouth and swallows. Later, his stoned friends start yelling at the top of their lungs on the lip of a mountain canyon.
Mason’s dad reports that he’s trying to quit smoking. We never see him light up, but there are overflowing ashtrays alongside the empty beer bottles in his apartment.
Not only are Christians sneered at in this story, conservatives in general are deemed dense and/or racist. One such bloke has a Confederate flag in his garage and threatens to shoot the kids just for walking up to his front door.
There is no question that respected indie director Richard Linklater’s film is an ambitious, groundbreaking work of art. It was shot over the course of 12 years, with the cast growing up and growing older in real life as they gathered for a few weeks of filming each year.
Thus, we watch as a boy of 6 matures from a button-nosed little tyke into a gangly, scruffy-faced teen as he meanders through a story loosely tracing the formative years of his life. His elders, meanwhile, bulge a bit and get a little more lined and gray.
To see such an authentic physical transformation in a single cast in a single film is a unique moviegoing experience, to be sure. But even though that ambling forward progress has been seen by some as this film’s greatest artistic strength, it’s also its most annoying entertainment weakness. Boyhood never really feels like it has anywhere to go or anything in particular it wants us to see—other than that slow passage of time. There’s no real story here, no narrative other than that of time slipping by.
Young Mason’s coming of age tale, then, becomes a long, seemingly directionless collection of … situations. Finding a dead bird. Facing bullies in the school bathroom. Leaving a stepbrother and stepsister behind in an ugly divorce. Drinking a beer with a group of lust-obsessed older teens. These are all disconnected, rather flat, unfinished storyline bits that pop up and bob around Mason as hair begins to spurt from his upper lip.
It all feels very much like the starts and stops, spits and spurts of real life. And since that’s obviously what the director wanted, well, then he should be congratulated.
Unfortunately, real life can be incredibly boring.
Which also seems to be a point Linklater wants to drive home. He shows us long scenes centered on bad choices and bland conversations. And he shows us an 18-year-old Mason pulling together his things to head off for college as his weepy mom worries over all the disappointing “milestones” of her life. “I just thought there would be more,” she cries.
And the film relentlessly carries that thought on, wanting us to come to grips with the idea that life’s not about reaching for milestones or grabbing big moments, but about living in every moment. Choosing to live to your fullest.
That’s a solid cinematic statement. It’s even a biblical one so far as it goes. (Not forgetting how the movie treats those who subscribe to such scriptural teachings.) But after sitting through almost three hours of foul language, crude capers, bad behavior and a multitude of scenes that play out as the dramatic equivalent of watching paint dry, it seems to me that the moments people might spend watching this film could be more fully lived somewhere else.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.