Boyhood: Another Look at Richard Linklater’s Non-Millennial Millennial Film

roadtripThe conventional wisdom surrounding last year’s much lauded film Boyhood is that its theme and subject matter concern the early life experience of the millennial generation. For instance, regarding the film and its director Richard Linklater, Tribecafilm.com writer Andrew Bell states that, “From ‘Harry Potter’ to Facebook to ‘Twilight’ to Wii, Richard Linklater captures the millennial generation in his latest masterpiece.” Bell’s comment notwithstanding, what is curious about Linklater’s film is the key ways in which it is anti-millennial or at the very least not limited in scope or meaning to one single generation. Indeed, a case can be made that the meaning and import of this justly celebrated film is multi-generational.

According to Pew Research the term millennial is a sociological designation referring to the generation of individuals born between 1981 and 1996. The use of technology is the chief characteristic uniting these individuals followed by education, politics, and economic outlook. Millennials have “taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.” In short, millennials are “digital natives.” They are able to navigate their way through these platforms and networks with an ease unmatched by members of prior generations.

With this description in mind, the thematic tone of Boyhood takes a decidedly anti-millennial turn in one scene in particular. While on a road trip to Austin, Texas, Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) discuss the former’s desire to delete his Facebook page. [See above image]. Instead, Mason wants to “try and not live [his] life through a screen.” He wants “some kind of actual interaction. A real person…” He also makes fun of the significance given to email and cell phone messaging. He clearly no longer wants to be a digital native.

Analysis of a later scene suggests that to find the film’s theme viewers not only must turn away from millennial considerations but the sociology of generations entirely. Here sociology gives way to psychology, specifically the psychology of types. As Mason readies to leave home for college for the first time he tells his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) that a computer program has placed him with his new roommate based on their shared interests and traits. His anti-millennial bent still showing, Mason exclaims “…Isn’t that kind of crazy though, that a computer knows who you are from just twenty questions off a form? I guess there are really only like eight types of people in the world.” He then mentions the existence of “subsets” to these types as well as the incredible 100% success rate of the computer program.

Mason’s words in this scene mirror those found in a passage on typology in Sonu Shamdasani’s Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science. Writing about Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung, Shamdasani states, “Jung developed a schema of eight main types. These fell into two main groups – introverts and extraverts. Each of these was further subdivided into four sub groups, characterized by the main function of the individual” (p. 77). The functions alluded to here are thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation. Placing the words introverted or extraverted in front of these functions yields the eight main types.

Introduced into the narrative near the end of Boyhood this scene involving typology is the third prominent reference to psychology in the film. The first reference concerns the classical conditioning theory of Ivan Pavlov and occurs in a university lecture given by Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella) who becomes Olivia’s second husband. The second reference is given by Olivia herself while teaching a class on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. As in the prior scene, a future love interest for Olivia is introduced, this time in the form of her student Jim (Brad Hawkins).

What is interesting about these three references is the manner in which the characters involved unsuccessfully embody the psychological principles discussed. Bill succumbs to a Pavlovian-like instinct to satisfy his need and desire for alcohol while Olivia fails to establish a healthy lasting bond with Jim. Also, her exclamation that her life is over now that Mason is leaving for college possibly points to an all-too-strong maternal bond with her son.

In contrast to Bill and Olivia Mason quite admirably manages his instinctual desires for physical and emotional satisfaction. Again, he knows better than to give into the constant urge to check email and social media outlets. He also has established a healthy bond with his parents, survives his break-up with Sheena with his self-esteem intact, and at film’s end appears on his way toward establishing a healthy intimate relationship with his new friend Nicole (Jessi Mechler).

A similar progression can be seen in Mason’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). An absentee parent in the early stages of the film, Mason Sr. gets a degree and a job as an actuary, remarries, and settles down with his new wife and child. Whereas other characters in the film represent the type of wisdom figures who through their own example impart the wisdom of how not to act, Mason Sr. conveys to his son through word and deed the rewards gained in pursuit of an excellent life. Such excellence depends upon the cultivation, realization, and sharing of one’s own innate talents and calling—a fact he makes known by singing the individual praises of John, Paul, George, Ringo, and, yes, Mason Jr.

The cultivation, realization, and sharing of one’s unique talents and calling comprise a key aspect of what in Jungian parlance is called individuation. The first English translation of Jung’s Psychological Types was given the subtitle “The Psychology of Individuation” out of the awareness that typology and individuation are inextricably linked. What Boyhood suggests through the characters of Mason Sr. and Jr., then, is that in addition to learning to relate to one’s instinctual and emotional needs in a healthy manner individuals also need to develop and follow their innate typological compass. This holds true regardless of the generation to which they belong. Next month’s post delves more deeply into the specific typological argument at the heart of Linklater’s multi-generational film.

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One Response to Boyhood: Another Look at Richard Linklater’s Non-Millennial Millennial Film

  1. Jimbo says:

    I am strongly considering using your website as an example of the devastating effects that contemporary academia has on the ability to properly perceive or analyze art in my thesis.

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