“A Universal Boyhood—Transcending the Borders of Age, Gender and Culture” by Suzanne Lai

It was really overwhelming the moment I braced the chill in the evening air outside Everyman Baker Street Cinema. I kept thinking about the level of association I had with the film I just saw. Boyhood, it was. Directed by Richard Linklater, Boyhood tells the coming-of-age story of a six-year-old boy in America. It records the becoming of the character Mason, and the actor Ellar Coltrane himself, from the age of 5 to 18. It is a record of ‘boyhood’, which transcends gender and culture. It brings forth a sense of familiarity, a readily accessible and shared memory of childhood.

The strange thing is that you do not actually share that childhood. You can grow up in any other countries but the States, and can still somehow associate, deeply, with those years of rebellion. Those years that you were once so sure that you are not going to miss them. Those years that you hope wholeheartedly to simply press the forward button on the remote control called ‘Life’. Born in the nineties, a generation of people grows up amid a landscape of constant distractions. The bloom of the Internet, the rise of countless game consoles and related simulants, the ownership of personal desktops or laptops, as well as the resilient existence of television. They live and breathe what Mason casually and poignantly explains during the road trip with his girlfriend Sheena—the in-betweenness. With all those multi-sensory distractions, this generation is slipping inevitably towards a hedonist style of living. Eventually, the pursuit of such ultimate hedonism pushes them to face the void of being, the almost absurd nothingness of life. They feel that imminence—the forthcoming of an abrupt full-stop to everything. Therefore, they find even more distractions to numb their senses and repel the idea of experiencing each happening one by one. ‘Here and now’ is deemed a complete foreign concept. These experts of multitasking can only live in between happenings, the gaps of the non-stop train of life.


It is the existential crisis experienced most dearly by members of the audience who have just stepped into their twenties, just like the ‘college kid Mason’. However, audiences in various age groups will easily find themselves resonate with that teenage angst. The majority of people have been through the ‘Jim Stark/James Dean period’ in their earlier ages—to rebel without a cause. It is all because they have once believed they have nothing to lose. They have put pleasure, out of all things, to be the first and foremost quality of ‘a good life’. Most of all, they have also struggled to ‘think things through’, to confront, endure and eventually choose to live with and to be forever inspired by waves of confusions. They, regardless of the respective generation they think they belong, have come to understand the power of the digital age, blooming and taking shaping since the nineties. Their everyday realities have been somehow, in all sort of extents, knotted and overloaded with treads of the digital and the larger-than-life visuals. Ironically, the relatively abstract and momentary visuals become the seemingly concrete place to hold onto in the reality of confusion and distraction. The audience statically observes the world along with Mason, through his camera, to and fro the fuzzy dark room of boyhood and the blindingly bright one of adulthood.


 This association goes far beyond the boundaries of gender and age. Differences and tension between genders can be seen but are treated with ‘stereotypical’ development. Specific gender roles are still assigned to particular female characters, such as ‘Mum’ (Patricia Arquette), playing the roles of a mother, a daughter and wife(s). However, the absence of a proper name for ‘Mum’ does not steer the audience to focus solely on these gender roles. Instead, characters are generalised with their sentiments. Through a series of monologues in which characters spell out their minds, they are stripped down to the classic definition of existence—Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am”. With this essential presentation of the state-of-being, characters become archetypes of modern beings. They are people who have their lives shaped during a turn of a century, fin de siècle. In the wiping tides of changes, they make decisions that they deem wrong whenever they look back amid all the ‘white noises’ of overflowing information and visual representations. Mason’s parents—‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ (Ethan Hawke) are so good at making ‘bad life decisions’, with Mum’s multiple failed marriages and Dad being always ‘too young’ to be a father of two. They themselves justifiably represent the ‘big kids’ with their struggles to accept the socially-agreed ‘maturity’. Such characterisation of the ‘parents’ highlights the vulnerable and arbitrary line distinguishing kids from adults, which leaves audience to reconstruct a shared experience in not just childhood, but a state of being in all ages and genders.


Some may say the cultural context of a predominantly white background in the States would deter the effective association between audiences with different cultural backgrounds and Mason’s boyhood—his journey to make sense of life, to experience the much loved cliches and yet fundamental ‘existential crisis’. Therefore, the existence of a successful association would require the border of cultural differences to be erased/deconstructed. Meanwhile, the existence of cross-cultural association can be evoked precisely due to the globalisation of cultural experience, the ‘Americanisation’. The viewing process is a self-reflection, during which audiences from different cultural contexts found themselves so ready to pick up the hints of association. Viewers become conscious about that cultural awkwardness—how quick they can withhold whatever cultural context they are in, in order to feel what Mason feels. There is even the desire to be associated with Mason, because this boy symbolises the prevalent narrative of being ‘cool’—white, artistic and always appears to be the least self-conscious person in the room. Some may deem that cultural repression performed by the audience themselves is the reason why this film touches the hearts of global viewers/critics. Upon that, its popularity may simply attribute to the universality of a life-decoding process faced by every social individual. Though the discussion of ‘becoming/un-becoming’ continues to be a clichéd one, it remains nonetheless crucial, which serves as a bridge to bring around generations of viewer—suspending their disbelief so willingly with the boy who has been ‘growing up on screen’.


Suzanne LaiSuzanne Lai is a BA graduate in Stylistics and Comparative Literature (Class of 2014). [Click here to read all entries by Suzanne.]

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