Boyhood’s girlhood

Reviewing Richard Linklater's unique study of growing up, Sophie Mayer applauds the girlhoods that frame Mason's boyhood

, 22 September 2014

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Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, released in 2014 but in production since 2002, is a unique project. Shooting for a brief period every summer for 12 years, Linklater charts the growing pains of Mason, played by non-professional actor Ellar Coltrane, a white, middle class Texan raised alongside his sister Samantha by sporadically single mother Olivia, mostly absent father Mason Sr., and two more or less awful stepfathers. First friendship, first love, first beer, bullying, the birds and bees talk, graduation: all the milestones of American adolescence, familiar from TV shows such as The Wonder Years as well as on the big screen, are present. But they don’t serve just to create humour or drama; instead, each moment offers a crystalline yet oblique glimpse of the formation of a person.

Lots has been written about how Linklater achieves this subtle effect, and specifically about the relationship between Linklater and Coltrane. There’s something particular working through the film about girlhood as well as boyhood: that is, about childhood and adolescence in general, as they both blur and transcend social constructions of gender. Through the course of the film, Olivia – Patricia Arquette’s best role this century – qualifies as a professor of psychology, and we get brief flashes of insights into a century of ideas through her lectures. Linklater doesn’t force the issue, but he highlights Olivia discussing John Bowlby’s attachment theory, and it’s clear that her relationship with Mason is central to his becoming.

While Mason has male friends throughout, it is in conversation with young women that we see – and hear – him most clearly

In important ways, Olivia’s is one of the girlhoods that frames Mason’s boyhood. We’re told repeatedly, by Mason Sr. and by Olivia herself, that she is a girl, interrupted, having had Samantha and Mason while in college, and returning to school to get an MA. It’s there when she reads Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to Mason and Sam: Olivia feels like she’s Moaning Myrtle, haunting the site of her own missed young adulthood. To her kids, though, she is a young, cool mom, actively seeking romantic and sexual satisfaction, an example of the protracted adolescence of affluent Americans, confronting post-crash negative equity while trying to keep up with digital technology. In a beautiful late scene, just before Mason leaves for college, she rages against the onrush of time and passing of milestones, effectively handing the generational baton over to Mason. We see his possible futures refracted through her reflection on her life.

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There are contemporaneous girlhoods around Mason as well: while he has male friends throughout, it is in conversation with young women that we see – and hear – Mason most clearly. His high school girlfriend Sheena, with whom he discusses life, Facebook and everything, is the most visible, but it’s with Sheena that he doesn’t respect his dad’s main rule for engaging with girls: listen to them attentively. Instead, he talks and Sheena listens (and eventually dumps him). When he meets Nicole in the final scenes, it’s her voice we hear, talking about her passion for dance and education – and we also hear Mason’s respectful silence, his attentive questions, his appetite for listening to her voice.

Whether he recognises her as the same Nicole who passed him a note in grade school in Houston, we’re left to guess, but their connection is palpable. The note represents a crucial moment in Mason’s boyhood, after his stepfather Bill forces him to have his shoulder-length curly hair shaved. Nicole’s “I think it looks cute” does the opposite of what Bill hoped his brutal act would achieve – that is, make Mason more conventionally masculine. Grade school Nicole restores to him the girlish self he fears he’s lost, and which returns again in shy conversation with her as they hike in Big Bend National Park – which, not incidentally, crosses the national border between the US and Mexico, a friable borderland where questions of nationality and gender are tangible, and fraught.

Like Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter), grows up on screen, from scene-stealing Britney Spears fan to thoughtful Lady Gaga fan

Stepdad #2, of sorts (he is not referred to as having married Olivia, but lives with the family and willingly adopts the role), a former US Army sergeant, similarly tries to quash Mason for choices about personal appearance that he perceives as gender non-conforming, criticising Mason’s piercings and painted nails. Mason is bullied at school for, apparently, similar reasons, and called out as gay by his friend’s older brother because he’s not immediately enthusiastic about the hypothetical possibility of having group sex with female sex workers. As with his peers, so with authority figures: looking at his photographs, a male teacher chastises Mason for a lack of hard work, whereas a female teacher later tells him he has a good heart.

But the strongest representative of Mason’s girlhood and the unstable, socially constructed boundary between genders is Samantha, his older sister. Like Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter), grows up on screen, from scene-stealing Britney Spears fan to thoughtful Lady Gaga fan. Sam is forthcoming where Mason is reticent, and she often speaks up for him, defending his nail polish to their mother’s third partner, for example. It’s seven year old Sam who tells Olivia that the family can’t move to Houston, and who later protests against her mother moving to an apartment. It’s also Sam who – albeit for her own reasons – tells Olivia to let Mason grow up and have his independence when they move to San Marcos. Even in talking herself out of the big sister role (of collecting Mason from school), she acts as Mason’s outer voice, making his inner thoughts audible.

From their shared bunk beds in the room where she sings Britney to the dorm room where Sam lends Mason her bed so that he and Sheena can have sex (possibly for the first time), there’s a closeness between the two that is not quite a substitutability but certainly a rich and thoughtful continuity. Although we’re never in her point of view, and see only brief glimpses of her adolescent becoming, Sam’s girlhood is a strong presence in the film, compelling in and of itself, but also as part of Boyhood‘s tender boyhood.

First picture is of a boy (Ellar Coltrane as Mason) in a striped blue jumper lying on the grass, courtesy of BFI.

Second picture is of a boy and a girl (Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater as Samantha) hugging, taken from the Boyhood Movie official FB page.

Sophie Mayer is a regular contributor to The F-Word and Sight & Sound. She is currently writing Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015)

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