Postcards From the Margins: A Too-Short Boyhood

Vincent Van Gogh's Peasant Boy, Digging; Nuenen; July 1885
Vincent Van Gogh’s Peasant Boy, Digging; Nuenen; July 1885

Boyhood is the first movie I’ve seen in a theater in months.  The $50 tab (tickets, tiny popcorn and drinks x 2 plus parking) made my husband and me nostalgic for the worn-out seats and sticky floors of the recently renovated movie-mansion’s humble predecessor. Reclusivity and ridiculous expense aside, Boyhood left me a little underwhelmed. Mostly because even at two hours and forty five minutes, it wasn’t nearly long enough.

The story’s main character is a boy named Mason. Mason’s biological  parents, Mason Sr and Olivia, are appropriately human and complicated. They do their best and love their kids. I am long past the idea that these attributes in parents secure a peaceful, even-keel growing up environment for children; they don’t. Olivia’s bad choice in men is just one fault among a number of compelling strengths, and Mason Sr. might have made the cut as husband #1 if, as he comments late in the movie, he had just had a few more years to grow up.

I watched with a parent’s point of view, although I will say that Mason’s charge (by a lot of well-meaning adults) to grow up, work hard, be responsible seemed like bombardment and made me squirm a little to recall my own occasional delivery of such empty, in retrospect, advice.  I squirmed a LOT when the first in a series of alcoholic stepfathers threw drinking glasses at Mason and his sister, Samantha.  I felt terrible for all the children (who appeared to do what was expected–for years, it seems–by getting along with and caring for each other in a blended family) when Mason’s mom saved only her own two kids by leaving said abusive/alcoholic husband.  Of course Olivia had to leave and she had no legal claim to the soon-to-be ex-husband’s children; she assured Mason and Samantha she had called the appropriate child protective services for the step-siblings left behind.  But they are not seen again in the movie, and you have to wonder how they fared.

An honest portrayal of the difficult-bordering-on-impossible task of parenting is welcome. The fast-motion observation of a boy’s life from six to eighteen is engaging, but for anyone who has raised a child it is astoundingly far removed from the real thing. The real thing is a lot less dramatic and a lot more boring.  Of course movies about the humdrum don’t sell and stories need to entertain. Fair enough, but I’m confused, and maybe disappointed, too, by reviews that suggest this portrayal of childhood is “transcendent.”

No one would go to a movie that was “transcendent” enough to show the real non-drama of ushering a child to adulthood.  But when we insist the fictionalization of boyhood in Boyhood transcends, what I fear is that we forget the true saga of the day-to-day, minute-to-minute life of a child. What is really transcended–as in “passed over”–is the reality of the tremendously long view it takes to parent.  What is really overshadowed is the astounding patience it takes to do right by children.

We are not a very patient people.  Children need patience.  Young couples, particularly couples too young to have children, need guidance and help to be patient. With having sex in the first place. With their children. With themselves.

Of all the adults in the movie, Olivia and Mason Sr. loved Mason and Samantha best.  Hands down. What if somebody had helped Mason’s young parents to be more patient with each other? Could they have made it as a couple?  Could they have made it as a family? What could we have offered them–what can we offer an Olivia and Mason Sr in our midst–to facilitate the non-drama of stability, a long marriage, (gasp!) minivans?  The non-drama of fewer transient relationships, fewer children and adults left (inexplicably, guiltily) behind?

What if the story was that a community rose around Mason Sr and Olivia, and helped them out in their youth and impatience?

I’d go to that movie.  I DID go to that movie.  Twice.  It was lovely, and not.  Really, really long.  And transcendent?  Absolutely.





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