Watching 'Boyhood' Saved My Relationship with My Children

by Deborah Copaken
Originally Published: 

That’s 12 hours of my severely time-constrained, single-working-mother life devoted to a single (-working-mother) work of art. And yet so profound to me was its scope and artistry, so useful was it as a tool for talking with my kids about divorce, I’d happily see it again.

The first time I saw it was on a date with my first postmarital beau, a kind and lovely Buddha of a man who picked up the shattered pieces of this freshly separated woman off her kitchen floor and began the painstaking process of gluing her back together, until we broke up nine months later. Yes, I realize that’s the gestational period of a baby as well. I don’t plan my metaphors. Or my feelings.

It was time to move on, and Buddha and I had always said we were never meant for one another anyway. He was a decade younger. We came from vastly different cultures. We were each other’s transitional objects, we realized, just like the relationship that Olivia (Patricia Arquette) has with her first postmarital beau at the beginning of Boyhood—but without the loud arguments and drama.

The second time I saw it was with my eldest, 19, just after his freshman year of college. He was so upset by his father and my separation, he’d stopped answering my calls or texts for several long, excruciating months. The reasons for this marital rupture were so complicated and private, so inappropriate for me to discuss with him in any coherent, narrative way, I’d had no language with which to broach the topic until Boyhood gave us one: art.

Art saved us. It gave us a platform, a way in.

Art saved us. It gave us a platform, a way in. In fact, our two-hour, post-Boyhood conversation over a plate of nachos and beer was the breakthrough moment for which I’d been fervently (if silently) praying.

It wasn’t an easy conversation, mind you, but it was a crucial one. And it might have taken years without the convenient porthole of the film. By dissecting the pain of the broken family in that film, we were able to dissect the pain of our own broken family, but with a buffer of fiction to smooth over the rough edges. Instead of talking about his father’s and my dysfunction, we talked about that of Olivia and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), which was oddly similar to ours. Instead of scraping the barrel of my son’s still-too-raw feelings, we scraped the barrel of Mason Jr.’s (Ellar Coltrane.)

In fact my eldest, an actor like Coltrane, is only nine months younger than his Boyhood alter ego. Meaning both Coltrane’s and his character Mason’s boyhood in Boyhood unfolded during the exact same 12 years and historical era as my own boy’s boyhood, down to the Game Boys, Tamagotchis, music (“Oops I Did it Again,” “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” “Suburban War,” etc.) and Harry Potter midnight bookstore releases. This provided both the mirror and parallel universe we needed as our conversational canvas. Because the canvas was familiar, so too was the frailty of human foibles painted on it. In other words, we could stand in front of that painting and discuss it dispassionately, like two visitors to the Met examining the brush strokes of a Van Gogh.

© IFC Films

The third time I saw Boyhood, I needed a good cry. Alone. This was before I landed this staff writing job. I was penniless, unemployed, and feeling like a royal, middle-aged fuck up. I’d just told the kids we’d have to move, as I could no longer carry our rent alone. They were, appropriately, upset. Worse, I was moving them into a smaller apartment on an unfortunately named street. “Seaman Avenue?” my teenage daughter said, incredulous. “I have to tell my friends I live on Seaman Avenue?”

“I’m sorry,” I kept saying. What else could I say? That we’d be living near the corner of Cummings? No way.

And yet, watching the film for the third time, I realized that black humor would have been the exact appropriate response.

In Boyhood, Olivia also moves her kids out of their childhood home against their wishes. But instead of apologizing and feeling guilty after her daughter, Samantha (played stirringly by director Richard Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei), runs around their yard saying goodbye to her home—”Goodbye, yard! Goodbye, crepe myrtle! Goodbye, box of stuff Mommy won’t let us take with us but we don’t want to throw away. Goodbye, house, I’ll never like Mommy as much for making us move!”—she responds with a gritty sense of humor and toughness I would have to find within myself to weather our own family’s storm.

“Samantha,” says Olivia, “why don’t you say goodbye to that little horseshit attitude, okay, because we’re not taking that in the car.”

I made a private fist-pump alone in the theater and promised myself to stop treating my kids like delicate flowers. Divorce was hardly a barrel of laughs for them, but it could eventually make them into more resilient adults if I doused the flames of their anger with droplets of humor instead of feeding it with the embers of my guilt.

The fourth time I saw Boyhood, I saw it in the privacy of my own home with an Oscar screener. My 17-year-old daughter, who was in the middle of her college applications, and my 8-year-old son, who was aching like the boy in Boyhood for his absent father, were curious to see it too, so I let them.

I braced myself for the final scene between Arquette and Coltrane, knowing that it had made me cry each time prior. Surely, knowing what was coming, I could keep it together for the sake of the children, right?

“You know what I’m realizing?” Olivia says to her son, who’s heading off to college. “My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced … again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fucking funeral! Just go, and leave my picture!”

“Aren’t you jumping ahead by, like, 40 years or something?” says Mason.

To which Olivia responds, “I just thought there would be more.”

© IFC Films

Boom. My tears fell harder than they’d ever fallen during the previous three viewings. I was trying to hold it together for the sake of the children—the same way I’d tried holding my marriage together for the sake of the children—but those impulses to shield children from truth and pain, it suddenly struck me, were 100 percent wrong. Kids can smell bullshit. They know when you’re faking it. And while they’d rather have their parents together until death do them part, it’s okay not only to admit defeat on that front but to express the broken sadness of that defeat in front of them. My children snuggled up next to me, one under each arm, and let me cry until my daughter tempered the moment with good-natured joshing. “Oh my God, Mom, you’ve seen this four times! You’re totally pathetic.”

“I know,” I said. “I am. But I don’t care.” Because even when you know what’s coming—whether it’s the sad scene at the end of a film or your own death—it’s impossible not to be moved by the fragile, ephemeral beauty of art and life.

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