The Real Hero in Movie ‘Boyhood’ is Education

Updated Sep 2, 2014

This Labor Day I saw the only real must-see movie for educators, or really anyone with a pulse willing to examine their lives. It’s the simple but very complex Richard Linklater film, “Boyhood.”

The film shows how life is a series of milestones, and, when you reach them, they don’t really come on with a fanfare.

They just happen. And then you evolve. You deal with the issues, or not. That normally creates all the drama in movies. But this film isn’t interested in the car crashes of life—the stuff of action films. This one focuses on all the moments leading up to the highs. It zooms in on the little parts, then zooms out just as the “Ka-boom” is about to happen. This film always rolls forward, capturing the flow of life’s overall journey.

At nearly three hours, it’s the underlying current in “Boyhood” that I managed to catch just at the right time.

My daughter is the same age as the actor Ellar Coletrane, the millennial performer who started the project at age 5 and then played the character Mason all through his own adolescence.

By filming with the same actors over 12 years, Linklater allows the actors to age before our eyes, giving it the feel of a documentary. And yet we know it is a controlled piece of art. It’s a fictional telling of life unreeled that leaves a viewer in a mighty confluence rarely reached in a movie theater, one that can only be described as sublime.

Like me, you’ll get all sorts of pangs of recognition.

Coletrane’s Mason may be the movie’s prime lens, but this is really the story of the modern family that today’s educators too often find themselves dealing with. It’s the single mom, Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette) with her two young kids (Mason and Samantha). As the years go by, you see how the brother and sister combo are completely controlled by the adults, who, for all their willingness to give parental guidance, are too often just a few steps ahead of the kids and in a different state of cluelessness.

Adults provide all the catalysts between the ages of 6-18. Olivia’s string of loser husbands forces life changes on the entire family.

But through it all, there is one unsung hero: education.

It is, indeed, the hero and the goal of where all this flows.

From day one, homework is stressed. School is important. When all else fails, Olivia still gets her kids to class. When life needs to get better, Olivia moves back with her mom, finishes college and gets her advanced degree.

As she becomes a psychology professor she sets the example for her kids, but also others.

In one poignant moment, a young Latino hired to put in a septic tank at Olivia’s home gets a bit of her advice. She recognizes he’s smart and tells him to go to community college and get an education.

Later in the film, as the family sits down in a restaurant to one of their last meals as a family before they all go off to college, the Latino worker emerges. Only he’s now a college student and the manager of the restaurant. He recognizes Olivia and wants to let her know how much he appreciated and took to heart her advice on going to college.

He tells the kids to listen to their mom, and then says the meal is on him.

“Boyhood” ends with Mason on move-in day at college, and the real challenge of higher ed begins.

If you’ve taught in a college classroom, then you’re living the sequel. For you, “Boyhood” is the “prequel” that just may help you understand the students of today.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok