“Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Boyhood”...and finding your own personal connections

Richard Linklater's shot-over-12-year Boyhood continues to do well at the box office...this weekend it expanded from 507 to 771 locations and still has an almost unheard of 99% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes (179 positive reviews to two negative). I've seen it twice, and have already posted two articles about it. You're reading my third.  

I first saw the movie two months ago -- in mid-June at Los Angeles' Arclight Hollywood, before the release and all the hype -- and spoke with director Linklater afterward, along with Ellar Coltrane (Mason) and Patricia Arquette (Mom). I then posted a capsule review, including their comments and my photos of the post-screening Q&A and audio recording of the complete 29 minute post-screening discussion. A month ago, following the MPAA's issuance of an R rating, I wrote a little rant about the Ratings Board's controversial decision to keep teens from seeing a film about teens.

Yesterday, Kramer vs. Kramer author Avery Corman, on whose book the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1979 was based, had a highly personal reaction to Boyhood. (Full disclosure: Mr. Corman is my uncle, and the women he is writing about in the article are my mother and grandmother.) In a way, his connection is mine, as well. Yet another thought which hadn't occurred to me. Subsequently, I wrote to him and we had a long conversation about the film. This seems to happen with just about everyone I know after they see it.     

I've had hours-long discussions with people about Boyhood -- family, friends, and strangers -- online, on the phone, face to face. I've learned a lot along the way. After seeing it the first time I tried to read and/or watch every interview I could get my hands on. The more I learned the more I appreciated what Linklater and his team accomplished. Even now I continue to make discoveries.

I love this review from Manohla Dargis at the New York Times. It's one of hundreds (see Rotten Tomatoes) but she analyzes it the way I've been doing, picking up on the subtle transitions and threads throughout the movie that many seem to miss.

After seeing Boyhood a second time I talked about the film for over an hour with someone else who'd just seen it, and I pointed out dozens of elements and themes in the movie...none of which he had noticed. There's a lot more going on there than many realize.

And I continue discovering things I hadn't noticed before, either just thinking about the movie, or from reading another review, or an interview...just little connections that they made, trains of thought that carry through the film, the way they show the passage of time.

What follows may contain spoilers so, if you have not yet seen the film, you may want to stop here. Otherwise, read on...



Regarding some of the (albeit very few) issues surrounding the film, one obvious example refers to the way in which Linklater chose to include (or exclude) chronology clues. Some have complained about the fact that there are no onscreen title cards showing the years, no clear-cut way to tell Mason's age as they go along -- you have to figure it out for yourself. In fact, I felt that way the first time I saw it.

On second viewing, I realized that Mason's hair is completely different as each year begins. It is never the same, or even similar, as we pick up where we left off with the next segment. Sure, I noticed, as does everyone, that it changes along the way. But a new hairstyle is the "title card" that says we're on to the next year. I know people aren't noticing that because I could hear it in the audience, and I've seen it mentioned in articles, and I've heard people complain that they had no idea how old he was in each scene. Once I realized that it was very easy to see the calendar turning over, and know exactly what age he was as the narrative progressed, even though there aren't a lot of overt clues. Yet all around me I heard audience members guessing, aloud, what his age was at any given time...and they were often way off. Some thought he was done with college in the graduation scene.

There are other obvious elements Linklater used to show the passage of time...there's the music, of course, and almost every year shows whatever computer was in use at the time, and what video game system was popular, and television sets. He obviously couldn't know in 2002 how computers or electronic games or TVs would look in 2013 but he was smart enough to know that those would be good items to include in each year's segment.

Then there are the more subtle themes that carry throughout the film. There are the boozers who wander in and out of Mom's life, the way that Mason's real dad (Ethan Hawke) is always the hero figure, and how the boy develops with these conflicting role models in mind. For example, when Mason's friends start drinking and offer him a beer, he really doesn't want it. He'd rather smoke pot. (Which, by the way, reflected Ellar's own preferences -- something Linklater insisted on.) Near the end of the picture, when his dad offers him a beer in the club in Austin, Mason turns it down. On the face of it, that doesn't seem like a big deal. But on a deeper level, it's a reflection of the fact that all throughout his life his mother and siblings have been abused by men who drank too much. He doesn't want the cycle to continue, and rejects the beer his father offers. Based on the conversations I've had with those who've seen the film, many don't even notice the significance of that, if they even notice it at all.

But Linklater doesn't hammer the viewer over the head with the meaning of those moments. In a typical Hollywood movie (or even an indie, I have to admit), after turning down the drink, the character would say something like, "I don't want to become like those guys. It ends here..." but it's left unsaid. All through the film there are lines of dialogue that are deliberately missing, ellipses that the audience must fill in. Many casual viewers simply think nothing is happening. Incisive viewers see so much happening on so many levels.

Most of all, it's fascinating how different Boyhood is after seeing it a second time, once you know what IS there and what is NOT there, because then you're not wondering what will happen next (the car accident that doesn't take place, for example). That frees up the viewer to just focus on what IS there and see what the messages are without the distraction of anticipation.

One way I like to describe it, which came from something Linklater said to me, is that it's all about the odds. I asked him if he thought about someone dying during the production, and he said he just "played the odds." When you think about it, that's key to the whole story. For example, when the one husband du jour starts driving recklessly after leaving the liquor store, and the audience is expecting a crash (all around me, the audience is shouting, "Oh no!") -- but it doesn't happen. Why? Because that would be movie reality, not real reality. What are the odds, in real life, that they'd be in an accident? Pretty low. But not in movies, where it's a sure bet. That would have been the easy, obvious way out. But the director wanted to show the way life really is. The teacher does not molest him in the darkroom, as many expect (although it triggers a couple of the funniest lines in the picture, and Mason's first F-bomb). His effeminate boss at the restaurant does not make a pass at him, as many expect. Because life usually doesn't work that way. It's not filled with drama, car accidents, suicide attempts, broken bones, sexual harassment, etc. You can count on those things happening in movies. No, not they don't occur in real life, but what are the odds? In the typical family with an average kid growing up, most of the time those dramatic moments just don't take place. Life moves along slowly, incrementally. That's what Boyhood reflects.

So when something happens, or doesn't happen that you were expecting, you have to ask yourself, "What are the odds this would happen in real life?" Or is it just something you expect because you see it in movies all the time? Linklater took bold risks by specifically not making the narrative melodramatic, by choosing to show the way life really is, the way a kid develops in the non-movie world. When Mason comes home high and a little drunk his mother doesn't scold him. In fact, she almost seems amused by it. It's actually a pretty tender moment. When she breaks down and cries as he's leaving for college he doesn't hug her. In a studio picture, she'd ground him after he comes home late and he'd hug her at the first whimper. But what are the odds that would happen in real life? It's all about the odds.

Many viewers wanted the film to end with him driving to college. But that's the way coming of age movies always wrap up, nice and neat. Instead, Linklater wanted the story to come full circle, to have it end with Mason finding a girl, thereby perhaps creating a new "boy" who will have his own boyhood. Recall the film opening with him lying on the ground looking up at the sky, alone, in nature. It ends with him and a girl, together, in nature. One becomes two, and perhaps another will be created after that. It's a cycle and if it ended with him driving to college it wouldn't have completed the circle.

The challenge is for viewers to let go of what they are used to seeing in movies and buy into what Linklater is doing, which is playing the odds. Showing the way a boy grows up in real life, how he relates to his family and the events that made him who he is. In a typical fiction, life is shaped by traumatic moments. In real life, that's not how it works. That's the deeper level to which people have to be willing to go...and find the moments that mark the passage of time, and the steps forward in Mason's development.

And, of course...Linklater kept the film open to the opportunity for viewers to make their own personal connections, as you have...or will.


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
  • Posted: August 16, 2014
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