The Epic Ordinary of Boyhood, and Life

A couple of weeks ago I escaped the summer heat and ducked into a local […]

Stephanie Phillips / 9.15.14

boyhoodA couple of weeks ago I escaped the summer heat and ducked into a local small theater to catch a screening of Richard Linklater’s latest, Boyhood. My motivation was multi-fold: my two-year-old is in daycare; I am currently ninety-seven weeks pregnant and my favorite activity is sitting still; and, with a newborn arriving imminently, I have surrendered to the reality that I will not see a movie in a theater for another decade. In addition, I had noted the 99% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating for the film, added my partiality for Linklater’s entire oeuvre (especially Dazed and Confused and the Before Sunset trilogy), carried the one, then thrown in perhaps the biggest draw of all: a growing urge for knowledge about boys.

As I’ve previously written, I’m thrilled to be giving birth to my second boy (and, God willing, last child). But my desire to be a boy mom isn’t accompanied by an encyclopedia of knowledge on the less fair sex. I have to admit that I’m intimidated by the unfamiliar nuances of bringing up boys. I know that, for now, the main difference between me and a mother of girls is that my purse is full of Legos rather than Frozen figurines; but raising a man of character in a world sorely lacking it presents a challenge that requires more wisdom than I possess. And while I don’t typically consult Hollywood for integrity development techniques, I do know by now that grace shows up everywhere. So I claimed a seat, ate my popcorn, and kept my eyes peeled for inspiration about what it means to be a boy.

Like most good movies, Boyhood didn’t seek to instruct. I’m not even sure it sought to inspire. What it did was, simply, show: twelve years in the life of a fictional but everyman-type kid-turned-young adult, a series of ordinary-seeming moments one after the other over the course of two-and-a-half hours. I was initially unsettled by the plainness of it all. After a few scenes that left me anxious and expecting a dramatic event or some cataclysmic occurrence, I realized that this wasn’t that kind of movie. Because this, generally speaking, isn’t that kind of life. If, as Thoreau attested, the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, then I suspect that the mass of boys lead lives of quiet curiosity, navigating a series of observances and experiences that shape them into the men they will become. Quiet, in fact, is a great word to describe the majority of the narrative. Excepting a few tense moments with stepfathers and bullies, our lead character Mason ambled through his formative years rather uneventfully for the subject of a major motion picture. (When telling my husband about it later, I welcomed him to thank me for not dragging him along–the lack of action would have left him questioning why the movie was even made. His response: “So…it was a movie about nothing?”) Once I grew accustomed to the hushed, seamless drifting from one scene to the next, I began to stop noticing what the movie wasn’t and start appreciating it for what it was.

There began to emerge a beauty in what could have been the tedium of these moments arranged side-by-side; an epic quality to the ordinariness of a single life. None of the characters, including Mason, were truly exceptional, but the simple telling of their story rendered them noteworthy. I thought of my own life, and the lives of those around me–none of us famous or remarkable to anyone but each other, but each of us loved and appreciated for all that we are, and accepted in spite of all we aren’t. The fact that we are here, alive, means we each have a story, and the fact that our stories exist at all means there is something in them worth telling. There is nothing necessarily instructional in such a telling; like life itself, it is a narrative.

I thought there would be more.

A couple of moments at the end of the movie crystallized its message for me. (And I omit the frantic SPOILER ALERT! warning because it’s impossible, really, to spoil a movie devoid of a true climax or complete resolution.) The first moment came courtesy of Mason’s mom, Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette. On the day Mason leaves for college, Olivia breaks down into tears and says it’s the worst day of her life. She provides a cursory summation of her adult life, concluding: “I thought there would be more.” Initially, I felt cheated by her statement: I was expecting a nugget of matriarchal wisdom, or at the very least, an inspiring quote to take with me. Her remark seemed riddled with ingratitude, with an inability to recognize all that I had just watched her give and accomplish over twelve years and one hundred-fifty minutes. Then I thought of the days I live, the mundanity of parenthood and the million tiny moments that make it up, the taking-for-granted and the plaguing ingratitude and the exhausting sacrifices, and I realized that I am her. I am her every time (so…every day) I reduce life from a narrative to a list, when I am blinded to the beauty by the contents of the “To Do” wipe-off board, when I become a slave to the calendar rather than an observer of grace. Lists can make our lives easier: they give us items to tick off and feed our need for accomplishment; but they can also make it harder, contributing to a lack of fulfillment when we fixate on them, then–at the end of a particular road–hold degrees or possessions in our hands and fail to recognize the value in reading books to tiny faces. There is a way to not get lost in the everyday while also not losing the everyday. There is a love that can take what we are inclined to reduce to a list and rebirth it into a worthy narrative–and that love is bigger, more unconditional, and more enduring than our own goal-oriented attempts at it.

The last scene featured Mason with some new friends, visiting a place where he spent time with his father when he was younger. He tells the girl with him, “It’s constant, the moments…it’s like, it’s always right now, isn’t it?” Despite being the musings of an eighteen-year-old who just consumed a pot brownie, this singular line summed up the movie for me. The moments are constant, and the onslaught of them tends to overwhelm me regularly. Just this morning, I rushed my toddler from his blocks to his room for a diaper change, then down the stairs and into the car for a physical therapy appointment. Our race was punctuated by clothes thrown in the dryer, breakfast dishes put away, toothbrushing, and missing shoes relocated and shoved onto tiny feet. Once I had him buckled into his carseat, I wanted to be lying on a beach, sitting in a library with a book, anywhere, just…done with all the busyness. I longed for an emergency brake to slow the endless momentum of this life I used to dream of and long for. Then I looked down and saw him staring at me, and as my eyes met his, he flashed me a knowing grin, threw out a “hey, this is fun!” giggle that reverberated throughout my heart and whispered to me to not forget this moment. And I thought about it the rest of the day, how I could be the mother who is so focused on what’s ahead that she never gets there, that she misses everything around her, that she steals these moments of quiet grace from herself and her family…or I could be the one who sees that the moments, they are constant–but they make it always now, and Now, like Then and like Yet, is just so full. I can be the one whispering back that I won’t forget; that–hey, Olivia? Just open your eyes. Because there is more.