‘Boyhood’ was one of the top films of 2014, it garnered many awards and accolades and most critics gave good reviews about the film. The film is unique that it was filmed over 12 years, starting when the child actors were 6 years old and 8 years old, and it was filmed chronologically as the children and the adult actors aged over the 12 years. It is the story about 2 children Mason Jr. and Samantha who live with their single mother Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette and she won a best supporting actress Oscar for the role) and their travails over their formative years, namely the upheaval caused by Olivia’s turbulent relationships since the divorce with her children’s father, Mason Sr. (played by Ethan Hawke). The film runs over 2 hours long and unlike typical movies, there’s no climax or some big revelation at the end but it gives painful detail about what it’s like to grow up in a single parent home where different step-fathers come and go. You see the triumphs of single parenting (by both parents), as they do try their best given their limitations, the sadness and confusion of the children with each change, each move and like their mother Olivia says keeping everybody away from the brink of poverty. The ultimate triumph of course is the resilience of the children, who managed to live through so many changes in such a short time (3 husbands, moving house 4 times all in the space of 12 years). Despite being raised on the salary of a single mother and very minimal financial contribution from Mason Sr., Olivia was able to send both of her children to college. Mason Sr. despite living far away from his children and making very little financial contribution to their lives, made the effort every other weekend to see his children and not to only see them but to bond with them in a meaningful way. The father-son and father-daughter bond that Mason Sr. forged proved to be pivotal as his children reached adolescence. He was by no means an absent father despite the physical distance.
Since the breakdown of the traditional family unit beginning in the 1980s, a new ‘modern family’ was formed in its place. Modern family can be blended families, same-sex parents, single parent families (by choice or not) etc. The ‘modern family’ is the new buzzword which implies that families now come in all different forms and the traditional family of mom, dad, 2 kids, 2 cars and a dog is not the only family model anymore. Whereas the TV show ‘Modern Family’ shows the fun and glamourous side of blended families where everyone gets along together and has a lot of fun and celebrate each other’s differences (and all the women are thin and fit), the reality is much more starker, as the film ‘Boyhood’ gives a gritty look at the instability of single parent households, with men coming and going, limited contact with their father and adults and children trying to make their way in life, coping with life, peer pressure at school and just trying to grow up.
Olivia and Mason Sr. married young and had their children in their early 20s and Mason Sr. was a free spirited musician without stable income, they eventually divorced with Olivia taking on the bulk of the childcare while her ex-husband went to Alaska for work ‘on a boat’ and he tried to write some music while he was there. It didn’t work out in Alaska so he moved back to Houston in hopes of reconnecting with his children and going to school to get trained as an actuary. Olivia is highly strung, impulsive, emotional and not always rational. She makes terrible choices in men and she reeks of desperation. On the one hand she’s bettering herself by getting her degree and therefore a better job and she always puts her children’s well being first. But she’s so desperate to recreate that nuclear family with the white picket fence that she makes really poor choices in men (‘a parade of drunk assholes’ is how Mason Jr. describes it).
In the beginning of the movie, she gets into a blazing row with her boyfriend because she had to cancel plans at the last minute (again) because the babysitter flaked (a common occurrence for single parents) and he was gone. The next man she meets and ultimately marries is her psychology professor, who turned out to be an abusive drunk. He was her meal ticket so she can finish her master’s degree without worrying about having to work. Her last boyfriend was a war veteran who seemed nice at first but was revealed to have a drinking problem too. Ironically, it was her first husband Mason Sr. that wasn’t drunk and abusive.
With women gaining more legal rights when it comes to divorce and custody, it was a huge step in the right direction for women’s rights. Women were no longer stuck in bad or abusive marriages they couldn’t leave because they couldn’t support themselves and they would automatically lose custody of their children. But the flip side, too many couples call it quits too soon and the people that are hurt the most are the children. The undertone of the story between Mason Sr. and Olivia was that they got married too young had children too young, and ultimately Mason Sr.’s musician/songwriter persona lost its luster when Olivia had children. She needed him to be responsible, step up to the plate and provide and Mason Sr. wasn’t ready for that. In fact, the theme of Mason Sr. not providing is so pervasive that even towards the end of the movie when they were throwing Mason Jr.’s high school graduation party and Olivia and Mason Sr. are finally in a good place in their post-divorce relationship, Mason Sr. offered to help pay for the party but when he opened his wallet he was out of cash and he said he’d go get some from his wife and all Olivia did was roll her eyes. No words were exchanged, none was necessary. You can see all the old emotion and resentment come bubbling back up when it comes to the issue of money.
The film is a perfect depiction of Generation Divorce, since the stigma of divorce and subsequent single parenthood and remarriages was removed, society then proliferated with single parent and blended households, whether by choice or not, a new kind of family was formed, one headed by a single parent, usually the mother. When the children asked their dad if he would get back together with their mom, he was open to it but said it wasn’t just up to him. When he dropped the children back at Olivia’s house, they proceeded to get into a huge fight where the children watched helplessly from the upstairs window, there would be no reconciliation. The audience isn’t given the backstory of their breakup, only hints at Mason Sr.’s irresponsibility to his family, which Mason Sr. admits to towards the end of the movie. In a particularly reflective scene, Mason Sr. told his son that if his mom had been more patient with him (Mason Sr.), things could have worked out differently. Mason Sr. acknowledges that he deserved much of vitriol he got from Olivia but that he also deserved a second chance.
The conclusion of the movie is neither tragedy over circumstances nor triumph over circumstances, it’s a mix of both at different times, and you just roll with the punches, very much like real life. It reiterates the belief that family is what you make of it. When Olivia’s second husband, the psychology professor, forced Mason to cut off his hair when his mother was out of the house and he couldn’t reach her by phone, in the car ride to school with his mother the next day, he asked his mother why she married him as ‘he’s such a jerk’? Olivia said that Bill (her husband) had many good qualities and at least they ‘finally have a family’, to which Mason answered ‘we already had a family’.
As a child of divorce, I can safely say that it is not the desire of children to have their parents stay together even if they are deeply unhappy, having parents in an unhappy marriage is also just as toxic or if not more so than a badly handled divorce. However, even things as unpredictable and mysterious as marriage and all that it entails, people can be partially responsible for the outcome by being mindful of their behavior in times of crises. But to know to do that, one needs to be emotionally mature, to not be too reactive and say things in the heat of the moment where you can’t take back and also to look at the big picture. Is a fractured family where I see my kids every other weekend or having to share my kids half of the time what I want my future to look like? And whatever that answer is should dictate how one behaves during marital conflicts.