A Boyhood Lived In Hard Times

“Boyhood” is a new movie from Richard Linklater. It has been hailed as a masterpiece, which may be a bit over the top, but it is a likable film and an even more interesting social document.

The boyhood in question belongs to Mason (Ellar Coltrane). We follow his life from age six to the day he arrives at college 12 years later. In some ways this is familiar Linklater material concerning adrift teens and young adults as in “Slackers,” “Dazed and Confused” and the “Before Sunrise” trilogy. What makes “Boyhood” distinctive is the fact that it was shot in 39 days over the same span of 12 years so we watch Mason grow up and his parents (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) grow older.

At six Mason’s father has vanished to Alaska and he, his sister and mother are trying to make a go of it in their native Texas. Over time, father intermittently reenters their life, his mother remarries twice, badly, but also manages to complete college and get a teaching job. Father also remarries, but life remains a struggle.

Mason’s story is his own, but it’s hard not to view him as emblematic of a generation since Linklater has grounded the tale in our time. Mason is just starting school when Bush/Kerry takes place, has turned 12 or so for Obama/McCain. For most of his life, the backdrop is war in the Middle East and an economy increasingly eroding the low end of the middle-class that he occupies.

He dresses up as a wizard to wait in line for the latest Harry Potter book and plays with the latest tech toys like Wii little suspecting trillions of dollars and faith in the future are about to evaporate in a puff of blue smoke and mirrors. As the film concludes in the present, he goes off to a second string college he can afford in a beat-up pick-up to study something that is unlikely to get him a job providing upward mobility.

Though he’s bright, dreamy, kind, suspicious of the conventional pieties, yet still as hopeful as only the young can be, Mason is also a poster child for the kind of distressing new normal that is devaluing the old reliable American Dream of progress and prosperity.

This week, coincident with the release of “Boyhood,” a new WSJ/NBC poll found that an overwhelming 76 percent of Americans don’t believe their children will do as well as they have. Only 21 percent see a brighter future. Women, men, rich, poor, gloom is universal. Only the young are slightly less downbeat — 61 percent of them believe their children will be worse off versus 86 percent of older respondents. These are the worst results in response to such a question ever recorded.

A piece in a recent Forbes (Aug. 18) further describes the less than rosy circumstances of the Millennial generation — kids like Mason born after 1980 — compared to Boomers (1946-1964) or GenXers (1965-1980). Roughly 25 percent of those earlier cohorts acquired a four-year college degree, whereas 34% of Millennials have done so. On paper they’re better educated, yet 50% more of Millennials 25-34 are living with their parents than were early baby boomers at the same age, only two-thirds as many are married and college grads are earning no more than those earlier generations though the cost of living has risen significantly.

It’s a troubling picture and is even worse for high school graduates. For them the kind of well-paid, steady industrial jobs that powered the growth of an expanding middle class in the last century are gone.

Dana Millbank of the Washington Post, commenting on the grim poll results suggests it is not just a decade and a half of misbegotten war, a market crash and lingering recession, increasing debt, rising inequality and declining opportunity that is making so many Americans lose hope for a bright future. It is also the inability of government and other institutions to do anything to address these issues. We seem to be on a treadmill to oblivion.

As “Boyhood” fades to black from the kind of western vista that used to symbolize America’s expansionist future, we can’t help wondering how Mason;’s adulthood is going to work out. It seems likely to be less gratifying than he hopes, more cramped, less wide open, with fewer chances to succeed. That seems an almost un-American sentiment, but it isn’t the filmmaker’s fault if he’s painted a realistic portrait of our times.

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