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Blog on Boyhood

Blog | | Jane Elliott

Is Boyhood the first ever prospective longitudinal film? Does it have any messages for those working on cohort studies?

Last Saturday evening I went to see ‘Boyhood’- Richard Linklater’s unconventional and critically-acclaimed movie filmed over a twelve year period from 2002 to 2013. The planning and commitment that this film must have required is impressive. As a result we can watch Mason Jr. growing up before our eyes. At the beginning of the film he is a six year old staring up at the clouds and struggling to please his elementary school teacher; two and a half hours later we see him on his first day at college. Simultaneously, we see his older sister develop from a girl to a young woman, and his Mum and Dad grow older (and a little wiser).

Intriguingly the film reminds us that real life does not always have a clear narrative arc. There is more character and context than story here. Sure this is a coming-of-age movie with the usual trope of an adolescent struggling to work out his identity, and find his place in the world. However there is no clear resolution to the narrative. The film ends with a mood of optimism, but there is no reassuring certainty that Mason will live ‘happily ever after’ and avoid the mistakes of his mother and father.

The historical and cultural backdrop of the film is part of its appeal. Cohort studies are firmly situated in time and place, and in Boyhood, three main dimensions help to situate Mason Jr. – music, politics, and computer games. The soundtrack spans Mason’s formative years, with songs stretching from the year 2000 (Coldplay’s “Yellow”) to 2013 (Yo La Tengo’s “I’ll Be Around”). Mason’s father provides the main political commentary, for example instructing his son that the correct voting choice is ‘anyone but Bush’. Mason spends much of his leisure time playing computer or video games and as he grows up we see the transition from the slightly clunky ‘game boys’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the relative sophistication of Xbox and Wii. There is also a scene where Mason explains to his girlfriend that we are potentially being tricked into becoming ‘cyborgs’ – dependent on our mobile phones, tablets and computers. Is this then the downside of being born into a generation of ‘digital natives’?

Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, was born in late summer, 1994 – so he is in a cohort located between ALSPAC and MCS. Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason’s dad, was born in 1970, while Patricia Arquette (his mum) was born in 1968 so both are of an age with the 1970 British Birth Cohort and also the same age as many of the parents of the Millennium Cohort and the ALSPAC cohort.

The film is successful in painting a detailed portrait not just of the individual members of Mason’s family, but also of the new ways of ‘doing family’ in contemporary society. Mason’s boyhood could be seen as troubled and disrupted by his parents’ separation and an alcoholic step father, but we also glimpse the love and resources that Mason gains from having step siblings, a half -brother, and an additional set of grandparents. Further, this reminds us of the challenges we face when we try to capture the rich and diverse family circumstances of cohort members in longitudinal studies. We need to ensure that our social science methods are as subtle as this film in picking up the rich complexity of lives as they are lived through time.