Patricia Arquette as quoted on IMDB concerning her character submitting to drunken abuse by men: “Now, I wouldn’t be like that. I would climb across the table and stab him in the head with a fork.”
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Being critical about Richard Linklater’s movies can be hard. I like what he does usually (um, not The Newton Boys), but sometimes I think he chooses a really great gimmick and then just lets the gimmick happen. Which ultimately may be the smartest thing you can do.
And illustrating the absolute dominating denigration that is “masculinity” is probably worth the price of an entire career. And “boyhood” is, in effect, “manhood.” I think we can see the movie as a kind of dissertation on Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up” (epigraph to the “Intimations Ode”).
Yet it is MOTHER and REPLACEMENT males which drive the meaning we take from the movie. Or, I should say, the fact that there are step-fathers, and that they are THIS kind of step-father (and that this is related to alcohol) must be a very necessary part of our understanding.
Patricia Arquette (Mom) is instructive–she is diffident and vulnerable (her physical body I think intentionally contributes to this)–and she becomes the problem. Or rather her need for a validating relationship is what raises the family–makes up the dynamic of need and change. The movie, for the most part, is not about a boy, but about a Mother. It’s about a mother who, lacking support, economic and male, decides to fix this by finishing the education that childbirth and motherhood interrupted. That pursuit actually brings the family (the children) the pain of abusive males. She pursues a professional identity–a self to be proud of–and raises her family within a circle of abuse.
At one point, after she’s become an instructor, she inspires a Spanish-speaking laborer to “go to school.” (Incidentally the man is working on a home she’s bought with her second abusive husband, who also drinks to excess, and who is an ex-soldier and a grad student in her class…yikes.) What kind of advice is “go to school” in our world? Saying “you’re smart, do better” to one person (but not the other laborer in the scene) confuses a political issue and seems a too-ready acceptance (and pay-off in the movie as this post-adolesenct-become-man returns coincidentally later in the movie to thank her and tell her of his success) of the “leveling” role of education. What is the “immigrant” success story here? Congrats, now you’re a Corporate Laborer!
Does this movie approve of education? What does it bring (the first drunk asshole)? Another of Linklater’s films, The School of Rock, is about the wrong kind of education–or rather that resisting education, resisting the institution (the school and the parent) is the real lesson to learn. But then the movie replaces this with, what? Kids find their path through “art” to…a glamorized rock performance? The pay-off isn’t making music but rather the performing self. Which is to say, it is very Hollywood, very conventional in our culture. (A more recent movie, The Chef, teaches us to “perform a truer self”–and it is far less interesting than The School of Rock while peddling the same “entrepreneurial” wares.)
What may be worse is that I think Boyhood lets Fathers off the hook. Ethan Hawke is Dad and I don’t think he ever “fails” here–other than to have not been the Man who stays home. Which is to say he “opts” out of fatherhood to stay in boyhood (and of course this is conventionally related to playing music as this is a common act of rebellion). Now, perhaps men can’t be mature fathers. And perhaps women can be mature mothers even when these “mistakes” happen. I’m not sure what has greater force in the movie. Hawke’s Dad does earn praise for “growing up” and finally becoming a father to another family. And he never seems to have been a bad dad–which in the movie’s parlance means he has never been a drunken asshole. But Mom can’t leave. I don’t believe the movie mentions any options for the young pregnant woman.
But, to give Linklater credit (though I think it is as much for opening a space for the viewer to actually think): Family is at issue here and the gimmick and the “boy” ultimately are just entry points to show the error of the ways we unravel within our conceptions of the family–and love and hope and expectation–the cultural baggage of what we are supposed to be as grown-ups and how we’re supposed to get there.
Finally, what I find most interesting about Linklater’s work is that he tends to undo convention while operating wholly within convention. The movies are conventional, but then, often quite wonderfully, simply withhold conventional resolutions.
Perhaps that’s what we need as much as anything, because it forces you, mindless viewer of confection fantasy, to think.
THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not…