Being Like Him: Fathers, Daughters, and Sons in Boyhood

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In 2004, when my dad was slowly dying from a calcifying heart valve, I listened to Wolf Parade’s seminal album Apologies to the Queen Mary while I drove across state lines to my job at a domestic violence shelter. The chorus of the first track of Apologies goes, “I was a hero early in the morning / I ain’t no hero in the night / cuz I am my father’s son.” I loved the song, but resented that chorus. The sentiment was almost perfect, but even though my father had planned for a boy, I wasn’t a son. I didn’t know as I was singing that chorus that my dad would be dead in two years, but I knew he was dying.

As I inched into my mid-twenties, I looked like my dad more every day. When I combed my hair back after I showered, his face stared back at me in the mirror. We had the same strong jaw, sunken wide eyes, and the same flared but handsome nose. We both used self-deprecating jokes to avoid confrontation, had a tendency to self-medicate, and shared a paranoia about our lack of intelligence. I was most of his flaws and a few of his good parts, and it was terrifying to know where my flaws came from, but it was also a relief.

In her review for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead slammed Richard Linklater’s 12-year project Boyhood for centering its narrative on relatability:

That Boyhood has been almost universally hailed as a masterpiece, despite the banality of its plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization, is due, in part, to the irresistible emotional power that lies in the harnessing of the passage of time, a passage that takes its toll upon all of us. The movie is the apotheosis of relatability.

However, my problem with Boyhood is that it was incredibly relatable, except when it wasn’t.

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Boyhood was shot one week per year over 12 years, and follows Ellar Coltrane from ages six through eighteen. More subtly, it also marks the growth of the cast around him, which includes Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Coltrane’s divorced parents. Boyhood suits Linklater, who also dabbled with the idea of cinematic time capsules in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, each of which traces a slice of a day in the lives of a would-be couple.

Two years before Linklater started shooting Boyhood, I interned with the Austin Film Society, a nonprofit that he started in the mid-eighties. At that time, The Film Society was connected to his production office right off of I-35—down the street from a place where I would go for 3 a.m. breakfast tacos. That summer, I glimpsed artists rotoscoping Waking Life and I would occasionally overhear a conversation about his process. Sometimes he would pop his head in to our office and all I could do was manage an uncomfortable smile.

Linklater was a father of a kind to filmmaking my friends and I admired—films about adrift characters who buck the pressure to “figure it all out, man.” The loquaciousness, the plotlessness, and confidence of his creative naturalism spoke to something directionless in me.

I was thrilled to be in the same building as Linklater that summer, but it also made me less assured that I could write. Even though The Film Society was run by amazing women and I met a handful of female directors like Cat Candler and Elizabeth Avellán, most of the directors and writers I interacted with were men—even the struggling filmmakers were men. I could see that I was outside even the outside.

I would joke with a friend about slipping a script under Linklater’s door. But I didn’t have a script to slip under anyone’s door, because I was certain my stories weren’t the substance of what I, and my friends, had deemed as good film. Namely, my stories were about adrift women, not men.

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There are ways that I find Boyhood incredibly relatable.

The neighborhood, for example, where Boyhood begins looks remarkably like the overgrown median and the chicken wire window screens of the Austin neighborhood where I lived in my twenties. In those days, I would sit in our mid-century ranch rental and listen to Coldplay—whose “Yellow” opens Boyhood—in such a way that I might as well have been lounging on the summer grass next to Ellar Coltrane, who plays the protagonist of the film.

And all the characters seem achingly familiar.

My parents also divorced when I was six. My mother was a teacher and raised me on her own without child support, like Patricia Arquette’s character. We moved around a lot, including a time we moved in with my grandmother. I went to several different schools, and had to learn how to make friends quickly. Mom had a lot of boyfriends, and while none of them were physically abusive, most turned out to be bad news. One was accused of sexual assault at the high school where he taught, another was a cheater, another a tombstone engraver who read my journal without permission.

Hawke plays the same character he has throughout Linklater’s oeuvre—someone who is adept in man-philosophizing about cars, music, and what I can’t help thinking of as “street smarts.” In the beginning of Boyhood, we see his “bad dad” side, but as is common with the every-other-weekend father, we eventually get the bursts of magic of someone who doesn’t have day-to-day responsibility. The every-other-weekend father is someone who can wittily answer the question whether or not elves really exist, who relies on camping and bowling as quality time, and doesn’t have to yell about homework. He swoops in for good feels and is never there for the hard stuff.

The ripped jeans, swaggery, drinks-too-much, every-other-weekend dad of Ethan Hawke’s character, could have also been my dad. When I visited my own father, I watched PG-13 movies and ate sugary concoctions that I wasn’t supposed to. He cooked me elaborate Sunday breakfasts that in retrospect would never have been sustainable as an everyday meal. He didn’t go to parent-teacher conferences or pick me up from piano lessons. He didn’t teach me how to drive or have to assess whether I was really sick enough to stay home from school.

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What I’ve loved about Linklater’s movies is the texture of his characters. They have both flaws and grace. It’s a style that requires the audience to bring their personal biases and fill in the gaps. Sometimes, those gaps are the beauty in Boyhood. But sometimes, those gaps reveal an underlying sexism. Arquette is just another iteration of the kind of woman that “sensitive” and adrift men have written into stories for years: “book smart; hot mess.”

Arquette’s character is the hero of Boyhood, and the movie seems to punish her for it. She raises two kids while she gets her undergrad degree, then PhD, and becomes a beloved professor. While we are charmed by Hawke’s ability to “try,” we see Arquette study and study, and pity her for where her decisions lead her. Over twelve years, she has two more failed marriages, one with a husband whose abusive behavior is made explicit, and a second wherein abuse is strongly implied. The echoes in later scenes of Arquette’s second husband don’t feel fatalistic so much as unimaginative. We fill in that the third husband was another abusive man, another bad decision.

Fundamentally, I don’t like what this implies about the filmmaker’s ideas about abuse and women. If being a victim of domestic violence is the supposed flaw in Arquette’s character, that’s a dangerous line of thinking. It’s the textbook definition of victim-blaming, and it invites whatever preconceived notions of violence against women the audience might have to fill in the gaps.

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Unlike Hawke’s character, my father actually wanted to be settled with a family, but he wasn’t very good at it. Or he wasn’t good at it in the way my mom needed him to be. He was a drunk, had a martyr complex, and could be a bully. For all the junk food he would let me eat, and all the ways he would spoil me, what I remember is that after too many Miller Lites, he would call to lecture me on the finer points of being a decent daughter: I should call more, I should think about how he feels, I shouldn’t always side with my mother. More than once, he blamed my mom’s stubbornness as the reason we couldn’t be a family.

He was invisible at my high school graduation because he pouted in the corner and snuck out after the ceremony. In a rare moment of maturity, a few days after calming down, he called to tell me that it was to my mother’s credit that I graduated from high school. He said that he was upset because my accomplishments had barely anything to do with him. He said that my mom raised me in spite of a lot of horrible circumstances.

It didn’t occur to me that my mom had done something extraordinary for me. I was operating under the assumption it was my mom’s duty to raise me, and that it was my father’s choice to be in my life. If my dad hadn’t said this, I wonder how long I would have blamed my mom for dating those horrible men and upsetting my life with her single parent lifestyle. I finally understood it wasn’t her; it was the small pool of men, including my father, that she had to choose from in our tiny town. I didn’t realize how much his words had poisoned me.

After Ellar Coltrane graduates from high school, Ethan Hawke takes him to Antone’s—an Austin cathedral of live music—to see his old roommate, played by the guitarist Charlie Sexton. This scene is supposed to be a bittersweet marker of time. Hawke has given up music to become responsible, and Sexton, who we met when he and Hawke lived in a grungy group house, hasn’t. Over a beer, Hawke opines on relationships and his sacrifices as a father. The beer and the signature Linklater walk-and-talk signify that they aren’t just speaking as father and son, but as men. Hawke’s monologue is supposed to encompasses the ethos of the film: raising kids is hard, trying to stay together with someone is hard, growing up is harder.

Dad: I’ve finally turned into the castrated guy she always wanted me to be. If she’d just been a little more patient—

Son: It would’ve saved me the parade of drunken assholes?

Dad: [motions zipping his lips]

There have been a lot of jokes about Boyhood not being Girlhood, and I think most of those jokes are a little unfair. It wasn’t Boyhood because of the lingerie catalogs, the Internet porn, or the teenagers talking about whores—I’ve seen enough coming-of-age stories about men that I somehow relate to these moments. And after all, women look at porn, too. Castration is what made it BOYhood to me. It was Ethan Hawke using the word “hussies” and not correcting his son when he essentially uses victim-blaming language toward his mother. It’s normal for a teenager to question a parent’s choices, especially when those choices adversely affect him, but it’s negligent for the father not to correct his son, and for the filmmaker to allow Hawke the last word.

The men I know who saw Boyhood didn’t take this scene at its face value. They’ve said the movie illustrated, instead, how much Ethan Hawke’s advice was off the mark. It was clear to them that Arquette made such sacrifices and that Hawke had the freedom to find a life that he wanted. They felt it was obvious that if she had stayed with Ethan Hawke, she would’ve only had one drunk, abusive husband—Ethan Hawke.

Maybe that says more commendable things about the real men I know then the director I thought I knew. It’s not enough for me anymore for a movie to be subtle or ambivalent toward systemic sexism. I need a movie, especially this movie and this director, to tip its hand. It needs to directly acknowledge that single mothers have a hard job, that the deck is stacked against them. I need the movie to be explicit about condemning and not commending that line of thinking.

In an article about the Hollywood gender gap, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis describes how sexism in the film industry “often works like a virus.” Ideas, gossip, and conversation spread it. It’s not unlike how sexism spreads in day-to-day interactions. I’ve come to realize how the virus drained my mom of self worth and stamina. I’ve seen how ideas and conversations keep domestic violence victims silent and ashamed. If we can’t expect better from hyper-verbal sensitive indie bro directors who are heralded as the “bright alternative to studio productions”—directors that we’ve—that I’ve—put on a pedestal for their humanism—how can we expect any movie that makes $300 million dollars to stop spreading the virus.

It’s occurred to me that maybe I’m just projecting my own fears about my father onto Boyhood, until I read an interview with Ethan Hawke, Linklater’s collaborator:

So I didn’t want Mason Sr.’s advice at the end to be some sort of words to live by always—it’s his dad’s experience, passed on. I think he’s saying something beautiful, about being accountable for your own decisions. And, in fact, there are some lines in that that are ripped right out of [my novel] The Hottest State, and they’re things that I really believe in. Of course, he’s also telling him that women are always trying to trade up. [laughs]

That scene at Antone’s plays out one of my biggest fears: that when women aren’t in the room, straight men shift their conversations. That what they say to us is not their real language. They call us hussies. They make us responsible for being abused. Our lack of patience has ruined their lives. We want them castrated.

It terrifies me. I think about the conversations I had with my father about love and happiness and success and I wonder if the whole time he wished he was talking to his son.

One Saturday before he died, he decided to pass on his own experience. We were “sorting his affairs,” so that as the person who would have to bury him and pay for it, I would know where to find things. We sat at his dining room table where he chain smoked, and he talked about the checkbook in the silver box in the armoire, the two safety deposit boxes in the national bank, the unloaded shotguns that were in the bedroom that I shouldn’t handle. Maybe because he could sense how much time he had left or maybe he could sense my desperation, we also talked about subjects we would normally dance around. He described the way my mother seemed to change from his friend to his enemy, but that he thought that was at least partly his fault. He admitted that he wasn’t always there for me. He told me not to feel guilty about our relationship—he didn’t start liking his own father until he was 30. He worried about me, because I was so much like him.

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It seems the problem isn’t that we’re not writing about fathers who talk to daughters the way they would talk to sons, but that we aren’t writing about men who talk to sons the way they would talk to daughters. I’m not speaking of censorship, and I certainly don’t mean that women and those who identify as women are too delicate for certain conversations. I mean the opposite. Can you imagine if Linklater wrote a script for his real-life daughter—who plays the often-sidelined sister in Boyhood—instead of assuming the male perspective to be more relatable?

Can you imagine if more men wrote stories for their daughters?

For his fifteenth birthday, Ethan Hawke gives Ellar Coltrane what he calls The Black Album. It’s a three-disc mix of the best of the Beatles’s post-breakup work, as if they never broke up. As a behind the scenes teaser, Ethan Hawke, the actor, published the liner notes from The Black Album on Buzzfeed. It’s an honest meditation on divorce, the fading of love, and mutual respect. I read these liner notes on a plane to Chicago before I had seen Boyhood and I started crying. Finally, I thought, an empathetic movie about childhood and divorce that I can relate to.

As it turns out, those liner notes were based on something that Hawke wrote for his real-life daughter.

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Photographs courtesy of author.


Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, The Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. More from this author →