Discover more from The Metropolitan
Boyhood, the Cazalets and Twentieth Century Women
It’s been an odd couple of weeks, waving my youngest child off to university and finding myself with an empty nest. (Tobias has taken to saying the family home is like a seaside town in winter: ‘all of the infrastructure and half of the people’.) Given that I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts (if I gave birth to you, don’t read this bit: ABANDONED, EXISTENTIALLY UNTETHERED, FALLING WEIGHTLESSLY THROUGH A PSYCHOLOGICAL SPACE OF NEAR-INFINITE PROPORTIONS) I’ve been looking for books, films or TV programmes that reflect some of this back to me, and I’ve been genuinely surprised by how little cultural coverage there is of such a common experience.
It’s not that I’ve been looking for answers, because ‘is my child allowed to grow up and leave me?’ isn’t really a question. (Well, it’s not a question you’re supposed to ask, out loud.) What I’m looking for is the feeling that somebody has been there before me, and came out the other side OK. It’s nice to have a template, a model; it’s comforting to know that you’re not the first micro-bereaved mid-lifer to watch a toddler pottering around a cafe and blurt ‘she’ll be off to university before you know it’ to her bemused granny. (Sorry, cafe lady.) So where are we all? Or, more accurately, where are the brilliant cultural artefacts that accurately represent us? Where’s my script?
I started off by flipping through my mental Rolodex of things I’ve already consumed. There’s the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a series of novels about an extended family covering a 20-year period from the late ‘30s to the late ‘50s. They feature a finely drawn portrait of a mother, Villy, and her bitterly confused relationship with her daughter Louise. As Louise grows to full adulthood and Villy grows older still, Howard gives a horribly convincing account of a relationship - already twisted by resentment and misunderstandings - whose difficulty is compounded by emotional and physical distance.
Howard is very good at conveying this sense of lengthening space, the gap that opens at the moment of birth and just keeps growing. All of the stages, from toddler tantrums to teenage nights out, are parts of an exorable process that culminates with you standing in a vacated bedroom, looking at the things they chose to leave behind. Suddenly you don’t know anything: where they are, what they’ve eaten, how they’re feeling. The intimacy of daily family life with its intricate exchange of detail is lost overnight. Your WhatsApps make you sound like a distant aunt: are you enjoying school? Are you making friends? (Here’s a top tip: when your child finally gets in contact to ask a question - the question will be about laundry - demand three pieces of information before you tell them the answer, like a menopausal Rumpelstiltskin.)
There’s little reassurance in the Cazalet Chronicles for the empty nester, although you will at least be distracted by how bloody good Howard is. The relationship between Villy and Louise is a portrait of pain and lifelong damage; it’s not very cheerful. And if you’re wondering where Louise’s dad is in all this, I can only repeat Hilary Mantel’s injunction on Howard - ‘Read her. That’s my advice’ - and warn you not to get your hopes up.
‘There’s no such thing as a happy family. How could there be?’ writes novelist Sarah Perry in an essay about the Cazalet Chronicles, riffing off Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina. This complacent and imaginatively stunted consensus - that functioning family relationships are boring, that they hold no narrative potential - began to irritate me as I looked around for comfort. I steeled myself to watch Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), a film I’d avoided because everyone said it makes you cry. (A celebrated portrait of a boy’s life from pre-school to university, it was filmed over 11 years to allow the actors to age naturally.) But by the end of it I was just cross.
The house might be emptier, but the subscriber list might be fuller: if you subscribe. We can’t promise you food and lodging but we can deliver an essay free to your inbox every Saturday morning.
Patricia Arquette’s character, Olivia, is the mother of the central character, Mason. At the end of the film as her son is packing up to go to college, Olivia turns into a snarling, sobbing wreck. After delivering some self-pitying nonsense about having nothing to look forward to except her own funeral, she screams at him to get out:
‘This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day was coming, I just didn’t think you’d be so fucking happy to be leaving.’
This is such a clumsy eruption, entirely at odds with an established character, that it can only have sprung from a failure to see Olivia as a real person. Has Richard Linklater ever met any parents? Like, parents who aren’t total fuck-ups? We feel all of these things and yet - get this - we don’t scream them at our kids. (There’s no discrete noun for ‘adult child’; it’s like the English language rejects the entire concept.) On the day they leave for university you get up after a sleepless night and you cheer them on as they kick the dust of your cherished home off their shoes, and you drive them however many hundred miles and you carry several tonnes of doohickey up and downstairs, and then you give them a hug and you walk away, carefully erasing yourself as you go. And you don’t let yourself cry until you get home and find the cold tea you made them that morning in their favourite mug.
What annoys me about this isn’t the emotions Olivia is feeling; I recognise all of them. It’s the total failure to convey the critical space between emotions and actions, which is the space where the interesting stuff of ordinary parenting happens. It’s the space where parents constantly split and reconfigure: themselves, their most cherished relationships, and their sense of what is appropriate and justified. This space contains a thousand untold stories.
Up until this point Olivia had been something of a model parent: hard-working, responsible, thoughtful, loving, physically brave. As well as being a certified grown-up she is also an actual psychology lecturer. But the film suddenly loses all interest in exploring her as an authentic person. As Mason leaves she is experiencing a fundamental rupture in the mother-child dyad, but you would expect this character in particular to simultaneously be thinking about how best to love her child and protect their future relationship. (And if that sounds like hard work, it’s because it is.) Instead of imagining how such a parent might deal with her own sadness, the script turns her into a neurotic middle-aged female lunatic to provide an oven-ready third-act catharsis. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is boring.
That aside I found Boyhood OK-to-good, although possibly that’s because it wasn’t made for me. It’s about the experience of being a young male human, written and directed by a man, and was most rapturously received by male critics. But then, where does one look to find the stories written by post-menopausal women with grown-up kids? We are not exactly over-represented in the arts. It’s almost like there might be a structural reason for that. (It was around this point in my researches, just as I was getting on my high horse, that Tobias played me ‘Poor Mum’ by Molly Drake, who was the mother and also the vocal twin of Nick Drake. A song about an ageing mother, it is so astonishingly annoying that cultural oblivion might actually be preferable.)
And so I went back to Twentieth Century Women (2016), a film written and directed by Mike Mills that’s one of my most reliable comfort blankets. Annette Bening plays a single mother, Dorothea, bringing up her son with the aid of a found family of friends and acquaintances. I absolutely love Twentieth Century Women; its characters have all kinds of flaws but in the end what matters is their intent, and their inconsistent, muddle-headed attempts to really see each other and be good to each other in amongst the serious business of living their own lives. And it has an absolutely banging New Wave soundtrack.
Mills employs an odd trick of telling you a series of stories about the central characters. Sometimes these stories are about them, and sometimes they are about their interrelationships. Each time a new story begins you think ‘Aha! And THIS will be the central narrative!’, until after an hour or so you realise there isn’t one; there are just these people and their stories. There is no central narrative, because life, and family, rarely has just one. Its texture is built up through the accumulation of stories and experiences, overlaid on personalities and preferences and dynamics, until every family, happy or unhappy, is utterly compelling.
Twentieth Century Women is rare in its truthful depiction of adults changing and growing alongside kids; changing and growing because of their kids and other young people around them, experiencing their challenges, updating their priors, working out which principles really matter and which ones you had just acquired without much consideration. It also - which is also rare - shows the young people listening to older people and considering their points of view. There’s a wonderful scene in which Greta Gerwig’s twentysomething Abbie is playing a noisy punk record by The Raincoats and Dorothea comes into the bedroom to ask what the appeal is:
Dorothea: They’re not… very good. And they know that. Right?
Abbie: Yeah. It’s like they’ve got all this… this feeling and they don’t have any skill, and they don’t want skill because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?
As a description of young adulthood, that’s hard to beat. And the converse -which is unstated in the film, but clearly implied in Bening’s marvellously expressive face - is that getting old is about having big, powerful tools and choosing when to use them, sometimes at the expense of your passion.
Dorothea is shown as being intelligent and flexible enough to keep growing, and to recognise that while she could raise her boy alone, she could also choose to loosen her grip on her ‘ownership’ of him before he is old enough to do it himself. It’s not really a film about kids leaving home, except in the sense that everything about parenting is ultimately about kids leaving home. But this time, as with every time I’ve watched it, I felt like it had me covered.
Abbie: Having a kid seems, like, the hardest thing.
Dorothea: Yeah. How much you love the kid… you’re just pretty much screwed.
For more on cinematic mothers and their adult children, what about Carrie Fisher’s ‘Postcards from the Edge’?