This image released by IFC Films shows Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in a scene from the film,”Boyhood.” (AP Photo/IFC Films)
It’s no surprise that Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Boyhood has an important lesson for parents. What’s unexpected is that the lesson comes from the production process, not the plot.
The film follows a boy, Mason, from age 6 to age 18, but in a radical casting and movie-making decision, director Richard Linklater shot the scenes with the same actors over the full 12 year period depicted in the storyline. As a result, the characters age naturally on screen in a way that even the best makeup artist could never accomplish, and the entire project has a rich, documentary feel.
Even at a relatively long running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes, the film can only devote about a quarter of an hour to each year of Mason’s life. Out of the more than half a million minutes in a year, the film records some 15, and yet it feels like the audience experiences a complete boyhood.
The exhilarating and terrifying implication for me, as a father, is that a boyhood can be summed up in a dozen 15 minute snippets.
My son, who is just a bit younger than Mason in the opening scene, is definitely a genius, a fool, a Samaritan, a thief, a peacemaker, a warrior, and much more for at least a quarter of an hour every year. Depending on the excerpt, I am a teacher, a prison guard, a friend, a rival, a comic, and occasionally a monster.
All of which has me wondering, just what will my son remember from his boyhood? What will be his coming of age story?
Despite all the time I spend trying to give him a good start in this world, it’s my son who is editing the movie of his own boyhood, not me. He is the one culling through all our moments together and weighing their value, deciding which handful will define a given year, which scenes will be the shorthand for his youth.
I may hope that he recalls the moments of triumph, like when his mother and I watch him learn to ride his bike without training wheels, but that may fall to the cutting room floor to make room for that moment when I snapped at him for running impulsively over the freshly poured cement of our driveway.
Of course, he is also pitting these moments against interactions with his friends, teachers, strangers, and time spent alone. So while I want so badly for the memories of his boyhood to be a series of interactions where I impart wisdom, life skills, laughter, and joy, in reality I’m fighting for screen time against the school bully, his first crush, encounters with wild animals and countless other things he is experiencing.
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At times it feels like all I can do is show up every day and try to act as well as I can as often as I can.
But there is more than one film in production right now. In one film I am an actor, but in the other I am the editor. In the film in my son’s mind, I’m subject to his cuts and consolidations, but in my mind I can decide which story to tell. It’s up to me to leave enough space for the full range of who he is to shine through.
I’m asked to recap my son’s life so often that it has started to feel natural to be summing him up before his life has even started to play out. I repeat story lines about how he’s always had a knack for one thing, or about how some other thing has always made him upset.
Sometimes I rehearse these synopses in calm voices with teachers. Sometimes I shout them back in anger at my son. You always! You never!
I’ve got to stop telling his story that way. He is not yet who he will be, and I have a growing vault full of footage to make sure he doesn’t get swallowed up by a limiting narrative.
When he’s caught in a tailspin over some fleeting crisis, I can remind him of times when he has pulled up and stabilized. When he turns boastful after a victory, I can help him remember the times when he was shown graciousness in defeat.
To some extent we are our children’s historians, recording their first words and steps in baby books, in Christmas cards, and in Facebook posts. But those anecdotes are at best like DVD extras to the true dramas they are living. I hope I can remember to stop packaging his experience, to stop boiling him down to the plot points I hope will matter in his life and just focus on giving him the best raw footage I can manage.