Film Review: Boyhood
By Brian Miller
The recent film Boyhood exemplifies the kind of movie with which viewers want to engage and reflect upon: it offers a coming-of-age story, has disarming actors, portrays poignant moments and invokes emotions, and shows off an innovative approach to storytelling. In other words, there is a reason the film is rated 99% fresh based on 180+ reviews from critics on RottenTomatoes.com. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly in combination with the factors just listed, the film addresses basic human questions asked by individuals, societies, and sociologists: what is the point of life and how do humans find meaning?
The film tells the story of the aging of Mason Evans, Jr. as he emerges from childhood and advances to college. As he ages, we see his evolving perspective amidst his mother making poor relationship decisions, the moves his family undertakes, interactions with his sister, both positive and negative interactions with kids at school, and his emerging freer spirit and photography skills. Consistent in this aging is that Mason wants to know what is going on behind the scenes. As his somewhat-absent father goes on a little rant about wanting straight answers (and not the answer “nothing much”) from his growing kids about what they did this week, Mason responds, “What did you do this week, Dad?” Chastened, his father backs off but we see this dynamic throughout the film: Mason always has questions while his dad tends to give quick, sure answers. Mason also addresses this with his mother. As a teenager, he notes that his mom is just as confused as he is and she admits this in the final moments of the film, suggesting that only her funeral follows her last child leaving the house.
As he ages, Mason sees and hears all sorts of potential answers to the basic question of meaning that illustrate common approaches in American society: loving relationships (balanced by plenty of failed ones), hard work, religion (introduced with two new country Texas grandparents), ambition, money, sex, a college degree, creating good art, being successful. Yet, all of these prove unsatisfying. The film ends (spoiler alert) with a suggestion that we don’t “seize the moment” but rather that sometimes “moments seize us.” A nod to fate or destiny mixed with the ethos of emerging adults that have no regrets about their choices (voiced by Mason’s most serious girlfriend) is the ultimate answer in a film where personal happiness and fulfillment are what matters.
The innovative storytelling of the film, a longitudinal approach, lends itself to exploring the existential question about the purpose of life. We see enough of Mason’s life to relearn that much of life happens very incrementally punctuated by big moments like weddings and graduations. The individual moments we experience may not seem like much but they add up to big changes over the sweep of a decade or two. The years in the film meld together nicely and Mason grows by exhibiting different hairstyles and clothing choices in addition to a maturing outlook.
My academic discipline, sociology, is not immune to this question of ultimate meaning and how humans make sense of the world. One branch of sociological theory focuses on meaning. While Karl Marx argued for a materialistic understanding of the world, an approach emphasizing power and social class, Max Weber turned the sociological gaze to the meanings experienced by human beings. Weber said sociology is “the interpretive understanding of social action to arrive at a causal explanation” and “action is human behavior to which the acting individual attaches subjective meaning.” He provided this illustration: imagine you are looking out your window and you see a woodcutter. What is motivating the man? Is he cutting wood for fuel? For exercise? As a punishment? For a job? Later sociologists, including Peter Berger, followed up on these ideas and argued humans try to make sense of the world around them. Indeed, if we want to understand human behavior, we should look at how humans search out meanings – some sort of explanation, whether noble or twisted - instead of living in uncertainty and chaos.
The sociological quest to understanding human motivations and meanings leads to the individual level. One reason this film is so engaging is that we all ask this question of meaning at one point or another. As I labor on another academic project, what is the point? As I clean the dishes after dinner, what is the point? As I get some time on a Saturday to relax a bit and review the past week, “what’s the point?” can often come to mind. This comes even as a lifelong Christian who does think we as humans have an ultimate purpose. I identify with Mason’s search for answers amongst the banality, troubles, and joys of life.
Yet, the first time Mason explicitly asks this question in the film, the first response that popped into my mind was, “Serve God.” Even though I did not grow up in a church that recited any sort of creed or catechism, I was reminded of the Westminster Catechism (which I was introduced to first at Wheaton College) that begins with “What is the chief end of [humanity]?” and answers, “[Humanity’s] chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” This wise summary helps remind me of where I can find meaning on a daily basis.
In the end, and beyond the scope this film, Mason likely has another six decades or so to keep asking this question. Perhaps he will find an answer and run with that for a while. American society will continue to offer solutions along the life-course. Perhaps he will get so busy in or jaded by adult life that he stops asking the question and just muddles on. But, here’s hoping that he (and the many of us like him) continues to ask questions and finds honest Christians who can empathize and walk with him in the right direction.