Exploring Feelings of Freedom and Control in Linklater's 'Boyhood'
by Alex Billington
December 30, 2014
All I want is to be free… Without a doubt, Richard Linklater's Boyhood is going to leave a long-lasting impression on cinematic history, primarily as a film beautifully crafted out of 12 years of footage but also as a story that captures the actual feel of growing up in America. Not only in the way certain fleeting moments mean more in the end than big events, but also in the way our upbringing shapes us. How the way we're raised, and the experiences that we're involved in, influence the person we become and the attitudes we maintain. Within Boyhood, there was one strong feeling that I picked up on the very first time I saw it at Sundance in January (and it has been on my mind ever since) – the nagging desire to be free from control. After another rewatch, I've confirmed that control is omnipresent throughout Boyhood. Let me explain.
The real cinematic power of Linklater's Boyhood is in the way everyone can see something of themselves in it, and everyone's personal take-away is different. We were all once children, we all grew up somewhere at some time, and even though we all come from different backgrounds there's something about Boyhood that everyone inherently connects with. It doesn't make big statements about how to live nor does pack in obvious lessons about adolescent negligence in every last scene, instead it's about showing us how fast life moves and how the little moments might mean more than anything. It's that connection we all have to growing up that is one of the reasons the film is being heralded by so many critics and cinephiles.
So - what is your take away? What did you find in Boyhood? What did you learn about growing up or raising kids? A truly great film is capable of being thoroughly entertaining yet can also evoke emotional questions about our own choices in life, and Boyhood is one of the few films this year capable of that. From my perspective, the strongest force I picked up on in the film is the power of control, or oppression if I really want to push it that far (I am not trying to say this is a film about parents treating their kids like slaves). It's the idea that other people are controlling us, even though they don't even know it. Mason literally says this to his first love at one point in the film. And his most powerful line of dialogue, delivered after an argument with one of his many stepfathers, is: "Can I just have one day where everyone isn't all over my ass?"
Think about your own childhood for a moment (maybe it's not the same as mine, but bear with). How many times did your parents tell you what to do? How often was it something where you couldn't argue with them, they simply demanded, and you delivered or responded and that was that? Or maybe they made the choice for you and you had no say? One of the most important moments in Mason's "boyhood" is when his first (abusive) stepfather takes him out to get a haircut, giving him a buzz cut against his will. I'm sure many of us thought about the time that happened to us, when a parent made us get a haircut (or prevented us from getting one), or made us do something we didn't want to do. They were trying to teach us a lesson, I guess.
But, as is evident with Mason in Boyhood, it backfired. Instead of teaching him to faithfully listen to his superiors without challenging them, or respect the demands of elders, Mason becomes more and more independent from this point forward. By the end of the movie he has longer hair again, showing that his true form of self-expression/identity is long hair, the same style that his stepfather demanded he cut off because it made him "look like a girl". While we've established already that Boyhood doesn't really show any of the major events in his life (that we expect), I would argue that the haircut incident is a defining moment in Mason's life. It leaves an impact on him that forever alters the idea of "who he is" and it all came down to control, or lack of it. He wants to choose what to do with his hair no matter what anyone else tells him.
There are numerous other moments, small glimpses and bigger scenes, that orbit around the idea of control and the effect it has on growing up. As kids, all you want to do is get away with things you're not supposed to be doing. However, some parents see their children as beings they rightfully can control, unlike the rest of the population (or their kids' friends, for example). They created them, and until they turn 18, they under are fully their control. As far as I've observed, the desire to exert control (or perhaps guide their offspring down the right path kind of like with bumpers at a bowling alley) has lead directly to the establishment of new generations of independent adolescents rejecting the social/parental structures that they're supposed to be following. These generations have grown up believing in independence and the freedom to be who they are, make the choices they want to make without the help of others, or without being told what to do.
Another important aspect of Boyhood is the way it shows that Mason does have some relief from control in his real, biological father (played by Ethan Hawke). Throughout the film, Mason seems to grow the most and have the best times with his biological father. Why? Aside from the fact that he's just down-to-earth and open, there is no sense of control with his Dad. He takes him to the most freeing place of all – the outdoors: they go camping, hiking, and they talk about everything from sex to baseball; there's a sense of openness between them and I believe that's integral to Mason. It helps him grow into someone who appreciates the openness of life, and isn't obsessed with the limits others put on him. A key trait of an intelligent person.
This sense of control is the opposite with Mason's biological mother, played by Patricia Arquette. She is the epitome of someone who doesn't have much control over their life, and he feels (because he has watched her for his entire life) her pain. Very early on in the film, in another key moment, Mason secretly listens in to a conversation his mom is having with a friend. She bemoans the fact that her life has been non-stop work, and actually says she has no freedom, that she can't just go out and see a movie because she went straight into raising kids then college then work and so on. It's my impression that Mason has been listening to this kind of outcry from his mom all of his life, and actively seeks the opposite: a life that is truly free.
Things get really bad when we meet the first stepfather, played by Marco Perella. He seems nice at first, but becomes more and more controlling as he gets more and more comfortable with two more kids and starts drinking more and more, too. It begins with "did you finish your chores?" and snowballs into the haircut moment and eventually physical violence, before their mom takes them away from him. The haircut scene includes a pivotal moment of dialogue. Mason tries to skip out on school embarrassment with a buzz cut by claiming he's sick. Later, he complains to his mom in the car and they have an important exchange:
MASON: "I mean, he didn't even ask! He just – cut it! It's my hair!"
MOM: "Well, no wonder you're angry, I'd be angry too."
Though it does put him in the sights of girls in his class. At one point at a party, Mason meets a girl that could be described as his first love. He says he feels comfortable around her in a way he doesn't feel around others. He's more honest in this scene than he has ever been before, and opens up. "I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I'm just not." His first emotional expression about freedom that he's been waiting to get out to someone who will actually listen. "Why aren't you?" she asks in response. "I guess it's just being afraid of what people would think, judgment." She adds that, in truth, we all deep down care what everyone else thinks. Yes, indeed that is true, and it sucks.
"I find myself so furious with all these people that I'm in contact with for controlling me, or whatever, but they're not even aware they're doing it," Mason says. Yep, he gets right down to the core of it. So in his perfect world without control, what's different, she asks him. "Everything." He adds: "It makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality." "Whatever that means." She then jokes that he's "kinda weird", and the scene becomes a bit romantic (aw, too bad, I was enjoying Mason's rant). The very next scene after the party is Mason coming home late to his second stepfather, who berates him at the door when he gets back. This is when Mason shouts (at the world, not specifically at anyone in the scene):
"Can I just have one day where everyone isn't all over my ass?"
It is this line that has stuck with me throughout the entire year. As much as it's usually screenwriting faux pas to literally state a lesson being learned as dialogue, it works here because it all feels so natural. Linklater is a master of natural dialogue, he's a master of making everything feel real even though it's still just a film. This line really gets to me because it's finally Mason expressing genuine angst about the force of control that has been there throughout his entire life. We've seen it. He senses it. We've picked up on it. So has he. And it's that moment after he told the girl that he feels it's time to let it out. I've never forgotten that line since.
There's a good discussion with mom and daughter at one point about how Mason isn't a "baby" and should be allowed to go where he wants. In the next scene, Mason asks to go to party with some friends, and then goes out to do some typical, crazy "we shouldn't be doing this" teenager stuff. A good time for him. He eventually meets his next stepfather in a scene where he's telling stories of the Iraq war and the oppression the citizens there feel, especially from the US troops that came in. We can only assume this leaves an impression on him, especially once he becomes his new dad and follows the same cycle as the previous one. Drinking leads to more control problems leads to more anger. Repeat all over again, with another dad.
At his 15th birthday party, Mason finally starts to express his independence. He has the more expressive haircut covering half his face, and his mom catches him coming home late from a party having smoked some pot. He starts to express himself more and more through photography. Then comes the pivotal dark room photography scene with his particularly stern, a-hole of a teacher. I always have a hard time with this scene. "Who do you want to be Mason, what do you want to do?" He says, "I want to take pictures, make art." The teacher responds with the searing: "What can you bring to it that no else can?" He's so condescending and hopeless that I can't buy this as tough love, but it seems to be important enough for Linklater to include.
At a late night queso session one evening with his girlfriend, Mason dreams about how he will soon be at college in Austin and will have a free life. "Doing whatever we want." And going to class only "when the inspiration hits." Indeed, ain't that the life. Of course, in Adulthood, they'll show that that kind of mindset isn't really possible to live with, but Linklater hasn't start filming yet (as far as we know). I find it interesting that by the end, in another key scene with his mother, he's pretty much "happy" to go (as she describes it) despite a denial about his happiness. Vulture even wrote a profile of the scene describing it as the "saddest moment" of the movie, even though she says that Mason is "so fuckin' happy to be leaving."
One of the bigger themes that Boyhood could be exploring is the difference in freedom between boyhood, or adolescence, and going off to college – the progression from boyhood to adulthood (freedom! right?). Going off to college is a huge step in "growing up", at least by contemporary societal standards, and is the first time that "kids" get to live on their own and take care of themselves. And by looking back at 12 years in the life of a kid growing up, it's no surprise that there are glimpses of moments where he wants to make the choice for himself but can't. That comes later in life, so stick it out. But it still hurts to watch him go through this.
So what's the lesson in all of this? What's the big point in pointing out the sense of control in Boyhood? If anything, it's to understand through observation the way generations change, and to acknowledge that more control is not necessarily a good thing. Complete freedom and the pursuit of happiness without restriction are some of the ideals that new generations are growing up believing in. To stifle them, to enact even more control because of fear, will backfire and only make matters worse. I always think of the Kevin Smith speech on the power of encouraging an artist, and how discouragement is incredibly harmful to creativity, yet it's happening all over. View this comic version of Smith's speech to get a better idea of what this all means.
I am not a father, so in all honesty I can't discuss what it's like to actually raise a child or the need to care for them and their safety. However, I once was a child, and I can speak to what it's like being raised. And I will say, as is mirrored through the genius of Boyhood, that maintaining an open-minded attitude and allowing free thinking/speaking/exploration is one of the most important values to have, as a parent or as a kid. It may take a lifetime to see the importance of that openness, but the effect it can have is lasting and limitless, helping remove archaic boundaries of expression that leads to even greater mindfulness and self-awareness with generations to come. Among the many great ideas in Boyhood, I hope this is one people pick up on.
Even the girl that Mason meets at the very end, she confesses to him that she loves teaching tap dancing because it has "creative freedom" and there are "no rules" – of course he's attracted to her after she says that. It's interesting to track that kind of interest all the way back to the early days of his boyhood, when he was growing up and learning to really be free, to respect and seek out and appreciate freedom of choice, freedom of personality and character. This is pretty much what Linklater was trying to capture. When asked about it, via The Guardian, he stated, "You don't choose who you are… you don't deal yourself the hand you have." Indeed, but we all learn to make the most of our time here while we can. Be free, be yourself, always.
In one of the final few scenes of Linklater's majestic, mesmerizing Boyhood, Mason drops off his gear in his college dorm and decides to take a ride out into the wilderness with new friends (skipping out on freshmen orientation). They go out hiking in Big Bend (high on some brownies) and he watches the others howling into the wind like maniacs, free spirits letting out. Mason smiles. "How are you feeling?" the girl he's with asks him as he they watch the sun go down. "Great. Pretty great, to be honest." Indeed. He is finally free.