On the magic of watching a mother mature onscreen
With just a few alterations, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood could just as easily have been called Motherhood. The film follows a fictional boy, Mason, as he grows from 6 to 18, but the audience also watches his family grow around him. It’s astounding to see actors age 12 years over the course of three hours without the help of makeup or prosthetics. But while much of the focus has been on the transformation of the boy in the film, what truly stood out for me was the transformation of the mother, Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette.
I first found myself first identifying with Mason and his sister—I, too, stood in line for the Harry Potter books as a child. But as the kids grew older and moodier, I turned my attention to Olivia. I went through (and perhaps am still going through) my disgruntled teenage years where communication with your parents seems impossible. I know what it felt like to be the kid who doesn’t call home enough from college. But I didn’t know what it felt like to be the parent who continues to love and support an unappreciative child.
The brunt of the parenting burden in the movie falls on Olivia, who raises the children as their father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) flits in and out of the picture, pursuing his dream of becoming a musician. I studied Arquette as her attitude, her prospects and her body changed. Arquette is currently 46, which means she was probably 33 when she started filming Boyhood. That’s peak actress age, according to Hollywood: from then on as looks fade, the number of opportunities shrink. So it’s rare and fascinating to see a real actress allow herself to age onscreen.
In many scenes, Arquette goes with little to no makeup (she is a divorced mom trying to balance work, school and raising children, after all). Her hair styles and clothing change as time passes and she settles into being a not-so-cool mom. Her body weight fluctuates as the real-life Arquette becomes pregnant, gives birth and changes in size over the course of the 12 years. These weight gains and losses parallel moments in the film as she goes through marital problems, financial problems and divorce.
It’s a selfless performance that exposes Arquette to the ravages of time. She’s a beautiful woman and continues to look beautiful throughout the movie, but the trials of motherhood surface on her face. Ethan Hawke (through no fault of his own) doesn’t go through nearly as dramatic a physical transformation.
Linklater doesn’t stop at studying how a woman’s body changes over 12 years: he’s also relentlessly realistic about Olivia’s depressing fate. Olivia’s flaws are put under the microscope: the children spend more time with her and therefore can see each mistake she makes romantically or otherwise; Mason Sr. has the privilege of hiding his dalliances. Seeing Mason Sr. is a rare joy for the kids, while Olivia must take on the role of the nagging mom.
In the end, she finds herself truly alone as her son leaves for college. He doesn’t thank her for her sacrifices, and she resents him for it. “Is that all there is? I thought there would be more,” she says. It’s not a glorified portrait of motherhood but a gritty and sobering one. It made me never want to reproduce and feel endlessly guilty about not calling my parents more often.
And that’s what’s so unusual about Boyhood. We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.