“You don’t want the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” Ethan Hawke, in Boyhood
“It’s like it’s always right now.” Hawke’s son, in Boyhood
This summer, on the third day of overnight camp, my 8-year-old son broke his arm. It was a supracondylar fracture, which means that his upper arm bone, right above the elbow, was in two pieces. If you’re going to break a bone you can’t break it much better than that.
It happened while he was running to breakfast. He tripped over a rock, put out his arms to cushion the fall, and boom…next thing he knows he’s on a 15-hour saga involving two hospitals, four hours in the car, endless waiting, and surgery during which he was put under and woke up with a hefty plaster cast from shoulder to wrist and two pins in his elbow holding him together.
All this happened because that’s just the kind of kid he is. If there’s a rock to trip over, he will find it. If there is an OK way to fall and a not-OK way to fall, he will fall the not-Ok way. I don’t know this for sure, and I won’t ask him, but I suspect he was running, struggling, to keep up with his cabin-mates. He isn’t the fastest kid in the woods.
That’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s not very coordinated – I think he has spilled as many glasses of milk as he has finished. And he’s not much of an athlete – he is far more at home on YouTube than on the soccer field.
He is also the kind of kid who, while waiting for surgery in the hospital, charmed the socks off of every doctor and nurse he met; who sat in Emergency for eight hours waiting to see an orthopedic surgeon without ever complaining because he didn’t want to be annoying to the people around him.
He can sit in front of a room full of strangers and play the guitar or tell a story without a hint of shyness or self-consciousness. He knows how you’re feeling before you do, and when he snuggles into you it feels like he’s a part of you – he’s a perfect fit every time.
That’s just the kind of kid he is.
So why then do I spend so much time trying to “fix” him? Why do I focus on the poor performance on the soccer field? The clumsiness? The lowest marks on the report card? Why do I want to make him smarter, faster, stronger? I have sometimes said, and others have too, that my son is too sweet and gentle for this world. That he’s going to get his heart broken. That we need to toughen him up.
Or maybe we should just back off and leave him be.
The night before my son broke his arm at camp, my wife and I had a date night – because that’s what mommies and daddies do when the kids are away – and we saw Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood.
Boyhood tells the story of a boy as he grows from age 6 to 18. The lad is played by Ellar Coltrane. His parents are played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. His sister, who forever outshines him, is played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater.
It was filmed over 12 years. Every year, the cast and crew would come together for a week and film the latest chapter of the story.
The effect is mesmerizing. You watch the characters age before your eyes, you watch the kids grow up. It’s so raw and real it feels like a documentary. It’s deceptively simple. It’s first and foremost the story of a boy growing up but it’s also a story about parenthood, America and what it means to be alive at this time in history. Like many other Linklater films, Boyhood makes ordinary life seem epic.
And for me, it was like watching the past, present and future unfold before my eyes. The boy in the film, whom we first see lying in the grass watching the clouds, is not unlike my son. He is sweet and gentle, an observer who tends to be on the receiving end of things. Life is something that happens to him. And he goes with the flow, to the increasing agitation of most of the grown-ups in his life who want to see him achieve his potential.
He also has a unique view of things and some amazing talents. In high school, when his photography teacher orders him to shoot the football game, he takes pictures of the stands and the sidelines because, for him, that’s where the real action is. And he’s right.
Boyhood’s boy and my boy are not carbon copies by any means, and I have no idea what my son will do with his future, but I couldn’t help but watch that evolving lad on screen and think that a similar story arc is, at the very least, a possibility for my son.
Which is perhaps why I couldn’t take my eyes off the father, played to perfection by Ethan Hawke. He’s a flawed father, barely around and often fumbling when he is, but I think he may be the wisest character in the film. The most potent lessons the kids get are from him.
He teaches them to be stubborn and loud about your beliefs, even if that means posting Obama election signs in a Texas neighbourhood where gun-toting neighbours wave the confederate flag. He teaches them that the only conversations worth having start with a willingness to pour your heart and guts onto the table and see what happens. And he teaches them that rules should be regarded as guidelines, to be broken when they serve no positive purpose. Hell, he even teaches them how to listen to Beatles solo records in a way that won’t lead to disappointment.
He’s also the grown-up in the film who makes the least effort to steer the boy’s course. This may be because he can barely steer his own course, or it may be because he trusts that the boy will work it out in his own time. Either way, the dynamic results in some of the most compelling and revealing interactions in the film.
The day after my son broke his arm and we were all back home from the hospital, a sad, unspoken truth hung heavy in the air: that he would not be returning to camp this year, that the session was over for him. He didn’t say a word about it, probably because he didn’t want to burden us with his sadness, but you could sense what he was feeling.
What he did say to me, out of the blue, was this: “You know what should be on the news? Our camp singing Oh Canada. It’s really beautiful.”
He’d given it some thought, and that’s how he chose to tell me he missed camp.
Because that’s just the kind of kid he is.
I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him as hard as I could, which wasn’t nearly as hard as I wanted to. I had to watch out for that broken arm.