Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Boyhood's Little Moments Raise Big Questions

A Grand Movie About Everyday Lives

Coauthored by David Lundberg Kenrick.

David Lundberg Kenrick
his website (he is coauthor of this blog post)
Some movies, like Seven Years in Tibet, take you to fantastic places you’ll probably never take yourself.  Others carry you off to bizarre and unusual places that don’t even exist, like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  But some of the most masterful movies ever made take you to a place that feels just exactly like your real life, with people saying things that sound exactly like what you and your friends say, about topics you worry about, and talk about, everyday.


When my son Dave told me that he thought Richard Linklater’s latest film – Boyhood -- was perhaps the greatest movie he’d ever seen, and offered to babysit his 10-year-old brother so I could go see it, I jumped at the opportunity.  Part of what Dave loved about the movie was the fact that it made him feel like it was about him and his own family; he described it as a movie “with characters who make the exact same types of mistakes that I’ve made, and that my family has made.  It’s incredibly comforting to know that my family is not the only family like it out in the world.” 


Click to see Boyhood Trailer
Trailier for the movie being reviewed here
From the psychological perspective, this film has a lot to offer.  The central character in the movie is a 6-year-old boy, Mason, who actually develops into an 18-year-old before your eyes -- over the 12 years during which the film was filmed. 

Perhaps not coincidental to our mutual enjoyment of the movie, a central feature of the story is the boy’s relationship with his biological father, who divorced Mason's mother early in his childhood.  It led the two of us to have a long conversation about the question “How should you talk to your kids about life?”  This movie provides two contrasting models.  One is a stepfather who micromanages the children, riding them incessantly about their chores and school assignments.  If you have children, you know that it can be amazingly difficult not only to get your kids to tie their own shoes and feed themselves, but even to get them to listen to your helpful suggestions without rolling their eyes toward the ceiling.  But the stepfather in Boyhood, who incidentally happens to be a psychology professor, becomes increasingly dictatorial throughout the film, forcing his son to get his beautiful long hair sheared off, and eventually screaming threats at the children and throwing dishes at the dinner table.  At the other end of the spectrum is the biological father (played by Ethan Hawke), a laid-back hipster and part-time musician who attempts to be completely honest and straightforward, and who does not lay much responsibility on his children.  Hawke’s character rants openly about the U.S. involvement in Iraq, shares beers with his 18-year-old son, and turns him on to his favorite music.  The biological mother, played by Patricia Arquette, falls somewhere in the middle – she begins the film a bit more goal-oriented than Hawke’s character, but never seems to fully fall in love with the suburban dream, and just laughs it off when her teenager comes home drunk and stoned from a party.

As the film unfolds over a dozen years, the mother goes back to college, gets an advanced degree, and eventually becomes a psychology professor herself.  In one scene, Mason, now a teenager, watches his mom give a lecture on Bowlby’s theory of attachment, about the adaptive advantages of having a mother and child who are strongly attached to one another.  What she doesn’t say, but what the film implicitly depicts, is that human fathers are, unlike most other mammals, also strongly attached to their children, and vice-versa.

If you watch this movie with one of your family members, you may be inspired to have a deep discussion about the meaning of life.  But Linklater won’t send you away with any prepackaged answers.  This movie is, in fact, the opposite of flicks like Captain America, where there is clear division between good and bad, and between decisions that are decidedly right versus wrong. Hawke’s laid-back character is surely presented in a better light than the authoritarian stepfather, but he’s by no means perfect.  In one scene, Hawke’s character is trying to have a heart-to-heart with his kids about how he and their mother are like many people who simply have difficulties getting along.  He begins with appropriate parental-level zen-distance and balance, but quickly summarizes with a statement along the lines of: “Well, as you know, your mom is a piece of work.” 

Instead of providing answers, Boyhood raises big questions, depicting people making tough decisions, and trying to plug away with their everyday lives, for which there are no clear right or wrong answers.  Indeed, there is one charming scene towards the end of the movie when the son is in an Austin bar with his father, discussing a recent break-up with a girlfriend, when he asks his father something along the lines of “What’s it all about.”  To which his father responds “What do you mean? What’s what all about.” and the boy responds “Everything.”  Instead of offering a line worthy of Obi-Wan-Kenobee or Gandalf, the father simply laughs, and suggests that the question is ridiculous.  

In one interview, Linklater describes how he asked the boy who stars in the movie to occasionally write down notes about his everyday conversations just as they happened in his actual life (if he talked to a girl in high school, for example).  The result, says Linklater is “a collection of kinda lesser moments.”  Linklater also says that when he is asked what happens in the movie, his answer is “Not much.”  But the result of all those lesser moments is a rather momentous achievement – a touching depiction of what it’s to like for a boy to grow up in a modern American family, at least a broken one.  

As Duke University’s Jennifer Lansford noted in a review of the research on parental divorce and children’s adjustment, broken families may be the new normal, with approximately 50 percent of children experiencing a parental divorce at some time during their development.  Linklater’s film should be particularly poignant if you are either a parent or a child from one of those broken families, or both.  But judging from the reactions of our friends, and from the reviews of this movie, you might find Boyhood touching even if you’re experientially handicapped by being from an intact family. 

Related blogs:

Fathers, Sons, and Dragons: Three generations bond at the movies. 

What secret is your spouse keeping from you? A review of City Island.

References

Lansford, J. E. (2009). Parental divorce and children's adjustment. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 140-152.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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