There are no real adults.
It feels good to finally say that and believe it.
It’s a sneaking suspicion that I’ve had for a while. Unfortunately, the myth of “adulthood” is so readily accepted, so easily believed and taught as truth, that denying it outright seems ridiculous. I’m not saying that there are no differences between “kids” and “grownups”; living in our messed up and broken world gradually (but inevitably) wears away youthful innocence and naivety. People aren’t born inherently understanding pain or loneliness or cruelty. The world teaches us about all of those things in time – and unfortunately, some have the burden of learning those lessons much faster than others. While age and experience do cultivate wisdom, the idea that there is some magical threshold separating the competent (“adults”) from the ignorant (“children”) is twisted. People exist along a continuum. They don’t fit neatly into the boxes of “child”, “adolescent”, and “adult”. When I say that there are no real adults, I’m talking about those boxes. The categories we use to describe the different stages of life are arbitrary signifiers at their best and destructive stereotypes at their worst.
I’m going to indulge myself with an anecdote.
When I was in kindergarten, it was obvious that the third-graders had more figured out than I ever would. They were in charge of the games everyone played at recess and lunch. They navigated the social circles of the older kids – fifth and sixth graders, even! – with confidence. They were in the forbidden “sex ed” classes one week out of every year. Veterans of the school’s most notorious teacher, Mrs. McCrae, the third graders had earned their “big kid” stripes. They were cool. And I was sure that when I got to third grade I’d be cool, too.
Three years later on the first day of school, I was disappointed to find myself the same awkward, skinny girl I’d been throughout my entire elementary school career. I didn’t feel any different even though I was supposedly a “big kid”. Thirteen years later, I still feel like I must have missed some watershed moment that was supposed to change me into that “big kid”. I’ve spent every age-related milestone slowly coming to terms with the fact that I won’t ever wake up one day feeling like a cool “adult” who has her act together. (My younger brother would like to take this opportunity to remind me that I’ll never be cool in any capacity. Thanks, kiddo.)
This sense of discontentment is part of the reason I really enjoyed Boyhood. The movie doesn’t articulate the feeling of failing to cross the threshold into “adulthood”, but instead shatters the notion of the threshold completely.
Boyhood affords us a luxury that reality doesn’t. In real life we live our lives second to second and frame to frame, almost like a flipbook. We change so gradually that when we look back over the course of twelve years (or more), it’s hard to remember all of the incremental moments that brought us to here from there. In contrast, the movie presents Mason’s life to us in a series of transparent snapshots. The Mason on screen at any given time might be two years older than the Mason from thirty seconds ago, but throughout all of the film’s transitions it never seems that his character changes abruptly. Every new iteration of Mason is layered thinly enough over top of his younger selves that they never completely vanish. The fragments of his life colour one another in and flesh one another out so that it is impossible to separate the college student from the little boy with the Dragon Ball Z bedspread. Of course, anyone can distinguish between the two. But we can’t say that they’re entirely separate people. There was no “threshold” moment where Mason walked on screen and was suddenly an “adult”, or even suddenly an “adolescent”. Mason never “grew up”; he only grew more fully into himself.
Boyhood tries to remind us that we are connected to our younger selves, whether we recognise it or not. This is an important – if uncomfortable – truth for anyone looking back on their Junior High School photos (don’t lie and say you were the one person who enjoyed middle school; we all hated it and we all looked terrible). Once we realize how much we owe to the kid we used to be – once we remember that our rational “adult” minds aren’t completely divorced from our prepubescent brains – we can feel a new sense of compassion for the youth in our lives right now.
Not all “children” are all overly-impressionable and stupid. Not all “adolescents” are all insolent and mischievous. And fortunately, not all “adults” are jaded and cynical. I think we can learn more from youth than some people recognise, even if we can no longer empathise or relate with them. But this is only possible if, acknowledging our own periods of childhood, we engage them in relationships founded in respect.
-Kevan M. DeCuypere