Thursday, 21 May 2015

Psychology Behind the Film 'Boyhood'

Oscar Wilde famously quipped that youth was wasted on the young. When you hear this quote as a young person, either you don’t get it, or you get reactionary and think, “Hey! Youth isn’t wasted on me!” Of course it’s not, it’s not wasted on anyone. The quote is really all about perspective. The very reason why youth isn’t wasted on the young is because for the most part, young people don’t have their youth on which to have a perspective: they’re just right there with it, in every moment (a presence of being adults have to work very hard for). Once we get perspective on our youths, it’s too late, and we don’t get a do-over. We get one stab at it, and we get this stab without the benefits of everything that we learn later in life – and that’s what makes childhood and youth so special. Not special in a rose-tinted-glasses sort of way, but special as in all-things-are-new, or as Dad (Ethan Hawke) says, to paraphrase, we feel more when we’re younger. Spoilers follow.
Richard Linklater has done a pretty amazing thing in this movie, which was shot over 39 days spanning 12 years (Mark Kermode). The viewer has the uncanny experience of watching Mason Junior (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelie Linklater) grow from children to young adults in just under three hours. Yes, it’s a long film, but their childhoods disappear quickly, just as ours do in real life. It seems that just as you get used to seeing their little puppy faces, they shift into something new – from awkward pre-adolescence right through young adult. Grasping back to their younger selves in an earlier frame is parallel to those moments we try to grasp our own younger selves.
Their lives, and the lives of their parents and transient family constellations are tracked by the music of the times and by the changing technologies of the day. We move as easily from Coldplay to Lady Gaga as we do from Gameboy to Wii to i-Phone 4. But these are only accoutrements, the real story here lay in what ultimately makes a man and what makes a woman. Namely, this is family – notably the parents, and we know what Philip Larkin says about parents:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

(Poem link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178055) 

Larkin’s perspective here is a notably dark one – and no doubt lots of people feel this way about their parents and are pessimistic about overcoming faulty family dynamics. Ultimately, of course, we don’t get to choose our parents or our carers. How much choice we have in how we respond to our childhoods is a deeper question – a question that is hinted at in the film. Resilience is both constitutional and psychological – but it can also be learned. Anybody can become aware of old family dynamics and aim to shift them to make better choices than their parents did; after all, this is what dynamic psychotherapy is all about.

We enter Mason and Samantha’s life already after a family rupture where the father, having some difficulty putting his own youth behind him, is absent from his children’s lives. Mom (Patricia Arquette) is bringing up the kids on her own. Recognising her personal and economic struggle, she seeks to better herself by going back to college to get her degree in psychology. Later (after a second marriage in which she has to save her children from an abusive stepfather) we find her teaching a class on John Bowlby and Attachment Theory – sharing with her class that if we don’t learn how to love in those first crucial years of life, we’re in trouble. Love between child and primary caretaker builds resilience – and it’s clear that despite the knocks along the way, both the children appear to have come away from their complex family lives with a lot more than simply being fucked up. We don’t know whether Samantha and Mason will repeat some of the same bad choices made by their parents, but they are clearly products of their upbringing and the hope is that they use their experiences well, developing sensitivities and making better choices than mom and dad did. The best we can hope for is that their mistakes are different than their parents and hopefully not as harmful to themselves or their chosen families.
While Boyhood follows both Mason and Samantha, as the title suggests, it tracks Mason more closely. It is, in many ways, it is his eyes that we look through in our vicarious growing up (again) through him. It is his knowing pause when he clocks that his mother and her psychology professor are more than student/teacher – he does the same with his father at the bowling alley, and then again when his mother repeats and reverses the student/teacher romance with her third husband. Mason is a constant observer of the imperfect adults around him. He is aware of and sensitive to his environment and it is through his sensitivity that we get to re-visit some of the tropes of growing up – tropes that become more distant as time carries on.
Like in Terrence Malick’s more diffuse Tree of Life, we get these distilled moments of childhood that we can compare to our own – fights with siblings in the back of the car, the excitement of seeing the return of the absent father, the close friendships of boyhood — or more darkly — the threat of the bullies at school, seeing mother beaten up on the floor of the garage, and the real fear of violence from a drunk and out of control stepfather. Watching the film we can see Mason’s absorbing all of this experience – but not passively like a sponge – but thoughtfully and oftentimes somewhat aloof, as if he is above it all.
Mason is railroaded with “helpful advice” from all of the adults around him who seem unable to take it themselves. The endless lectures from parents and teachers about how to be a good person. Dad’s voluminous “fatherly advice” that sounds worn and trite, rules dictated by stepfathers who spectacularly fail as exemplars, mother’s defeated nihilism and self-pity revealed towards the end of the film, and most clearly, the platitudinous nonsense delivered by his boss at the restaurant where he works. Mason won’t get the answers he’s looking for from the adults around him, he will have to find them himself.
As Alan Watts says:
Children are in no position to see the contradictions in [society’s] demands, and even if some prodigy were to point them out, he would be told summarily not to ‘answer back,’ and that he lacked respect for his ‘elders and betters’. instead of giving our children clear and explicitly explanations of the game rules of the community, we befuddle them hopelessly because we – as adults – were once so befuddled, and, remaining so, do not understand the game we are playing
Mason seems to be this prodigy-like child with one of these internal bullshit monitors allowing him to identify the unworthy sources of life-information. He is a young existentialist – mindful of being in the world and not needing to be a conventional member of it. As the film winds up he enters his dorm room, already adorned with poster of mushrooms (magic, presumably) on the wall. He transcends conventionality by accessing another – drug induced – perspective on the world – forgoing the conventional “orientation” he was expected to attend as a new student. Instead he hikes with his new friends to Texas’s Big Bend in an open ending reminiscent of the finish of The Graduate.
This is the moment (and you can feel it in your bones) when Mason’s life really opens up. Now he has the chance to make his own decisions, based on his sensitivities and all that he’s learned at home can come together and direct him forward. The fullness of the opportunity is so palpable that it’s bound to give anyone over the age of 19 a bit of “Youth Envy” – and hopefully the encouragement to anyone, of any age, to remember that life’s not so much about seizing the moment as it is allowing the moment to seize you.

No comments: