Produced and distributed by IFC
Directed and written by Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood became the critics’ darling upon its staged release at the end of 2014.  From The New Yorker to the Daily News, reviewers have vied with one another to sing its praises.  Most of them think it’s a natural coming of age film.  They’re dead wrong.

The one thing that can be said accurately of the film is that it’s an unmistakably American product.  Whether this is a matter for applause or scorn, I can’t say with certainty.  From my intentionalist’s point of view, much depends on Linklater’s purpose, which, if not inscrutable, is difficult to flush out.  This is perfectly understandable in a work delivered as a faux cinéma vérité.  Authorial directions are silent.

For me, the question of how to understand the narrative comes down to this: Is it neorealist or satiric?  If the first, the film is a shapeless, pretentious work.  If the latter, then it’s a quietly astringent indictment of the way much of America conducts its parenting today.  I am going to assume Link later intends the second.

Twelve years ago, Linklater selected two children—a girl of eight (Lorelei Linklater, his own daughter), and a boy of six (Ellar Coltrane)—to play sister and brother, and then filmed them through the years as they grew into early adulthood.  As the title suggests, the boy, Mason, is the film’s focus.  We watch him pass through the ordinary stages of childhood behavior—riding his bike, playing video games, giggling with a friend over a Victoria’s Secret catalog, drinking beer, boasting of sexual experience he clearly hasn’t had, acquiring and losing a girlfriend, and finally leaving home for college.  Through it all, he witnesses an adult world that is at first confusing and then increasingly disillusioning and, what’s worse, dispiriting.

We find out that his parents had Mason’s sister out of wedlock (are we still allowed to say that?) and, after marrying to repair their “mistake,” made a series of poor choices that led to their divorce.  Although they’re both devoted to the children, neither is prepared to give up the pursuit of romantic love.  The mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) run haplessly from partner to partner in search of—what?  Fulfillment?  They mean well, of course.  The mother says she wants to establish a family for the kids.  Later, upon becoming a college psychology teacher, she vigorously propounds John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which states that love is an evolutionary survival strategy.  (So that’s what it is.)  The father only sees the children every other week.  He tries to make up for his absences by indulging them with gifts and taking them to ballgames and diners.  They enjoy his efforts but find them wanting.  Like children everywhere, they want a father they can love and respect.  What he gives them materially comes in a distant second.

Things turn uglier when the mother starts flirting with her college psychology professor in front of 12-year-old Mason.  The boy’s puzzled expression tells us all we need to know.  He doesn’t quite believe what he’s seeing, but he keeps his misgivings to himself.  As for Mom, she has no misgivings at all.  She marries this fellow, only to discover soon after moving in with him and his own two children that he’s a drunken martinet.  He feels free to treat her children as he does his own.  In between toots from the bottle he keeps hidden on a shelf in his garage, he hectors the children constantly to do their chores, while he pompously patrols the boundary lines he’s laid out for their lives.  Alcoholic and punctilious, he’s a familiar type, and you have to wonder how a woman in her mid-30’s could miss the obvious clues before hitching herself to such a bozo.  The children, of course, do not know how to respond to him.  They’re at once angry and terrorized.  But Mom is so desperate to have a “family” that she hangs on, until one afternoon when Herr Professor decks her in their garage.  Only then does she decide to clear out.  Mason and his sister are shocked.  What about their stepsiblings?  Mom tells them blithely that their own mother will have to step in, ignoring the fact that this other mother has long been missing in action.

In the land of romance and divorce, Linklater suggests, this is par for the course.  Mom’s next move?  True to Bowlby’s theory of emotional attachment as survival strategy, she does the obvious.  She invites one of her older students to move in with her and her children.  He’s not much of an improvement, but the romantic imperative must be obeyed.  This is America, after all.  Regardless of our parental responsibilities, we’re duty-bound to worship first and foremost at the altar of the self’s desires.  A few years later, after ditching her student lover, she takes her children to a diner to tell them that she’s selling her house and moving into an apartment.  They’re to clear out their possessions pronto, she informs them.  While they look at her dumbfounded, she points out that it’s past time they leave the nest and let her live her own life.  So much for attachment theory.

The father hasn’t much more to offer.  Having acquired a new wife and a new child, he asks the older children to attend the baby’s baptism.  “It will mean a lot” to his religiously minded wife, he explains embarrassedly.  This prompts Mason to ask if he and his sister had been baptized.  Their father gives him an arch look, as if to answer his question with one of his own: Are you kidding me?  He then goes on to explain himself: “At that time, I wasn’t at all concerned with your soul.”  Although unintentionally callous, his reply has the virtue of being true.

The day after Mason graduates from high school, he asks his father another question: “What’s the point?”  His old man assumes he wants guidance with his romantic life, which has run aground in the wake of his high-school sweetheart taking up with someone else.  Dad’s advice is peerless: Move on.  Girls come and go; it’s best not to take them too seriously.  Join a band.  “That’s what I did.  You get plenty of p-s sy that way.”  Mason takes this in with an ironic smile, leaving unspoken his obvious thought: Dad, isn’t that how you wound up getting Mom pregnant and later failing your children?

But handling women is not uppermost in Mason’s mind.  He’s looking for something a little deeper, something related to his baptism question.  So he puts the old man straight.  “No,” he asks.  “What’s the point of everything?”

Flustered, the best Dad can do is reply, “I sure as shit don’t know.”  “Nor does anyone else,” he adds defiantly, sweeping away his churchly wife’s beliefs and his son’s metaphysical longings with a simple, all-purpose scatological phrase.

So after 12 years of being shuttled about by his mother as she searched for herself and visited by his father now and then, Mason finds himself at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, where, on his first day, he skips orientation in favor of a disorienting mushroom high with a girl he’s just met.  They go to Big Bend State Park to take in the spectacular scenery.  As they do, the girl sententiously comments that, while others may urge us to seize the moment, she’s convinced it’s really the other way round.  “The moment seizes us.”

In a state of dreamy recognition, Mason agrees.  “Yeah . . . Yeah, I know.  It’s constant.  The moments . . . It’s just—it’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

It’s this passive hedonism that Mason has embraced as life’s meaning.  And why not?  He’s been provided with no better navigational tactics.

Does Linklater intend this scene to be satiric?  It’s played with a gentle seriousness that suggests not.  It seems, after having skewered American parenting, he thinks the adolescents it raises can somehow achieve a Whitmanesque transcendence into an eternal now that serves as the very meaning of existence.  If so, he’s at once profoundly American and, for me, thoroughly disappointing.