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Teaching Strategies

Boyhood: A Great Film to Use With Teens

Mark Phillips suggests using “Boyhood” to help teens discuss family and social issues, with tips for dealing with the film’s unusual length and R rating.

February 17, 2015

Boyhood is a superb film that is also a front-runner for Best Film next Sunday night at the Academy Awards. Following the life of a boy and his family over 12 years, it gives us an intimate journey into the boy's development over time, the effects of divorce, single parenting, peer-group relations, and the challenges faced by children and adolescents in this era.

Although not a documentary, Boyhood often feels like one. Director Richard Linklater does a remarkable job of using the same actors over a 12-year span in an almost seamless transition through the stages of the family. Now available on video, it's an excellent film to use in teaching, as it relates to the lives of many kids today and raises important issues that can provoke great classroom discussions.

Working Around Restrictions

However, there are some obstacles to using the film. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave Boyhood an R rating (Restricted: Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian). Additionally, the running time (over two and a half hours) poses a challenge in terms of class time. But I think both obstacles can be overcome.

Given the film's episodic nature, it would be easy to show over the course of a week with discussion and exercises tied to each portion. Another option would be to arrange for a full-school showing, followed by social studies or English classroom exercises and discussion. I don't think that showing select scenes from the film is a sound option. It would be like having students read only excerpts from The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.

The R rating poses a different type of challenge, as it does for many films that would be perfect for use with adolescents. The MPAA based its rating on "language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use." A single episode of many popular television shows viewed by adolescents may have plenty of this, highlighting the absurdity of this outdated rating system.

Whether the rating is justified or not, an R-rated film can be shown in most schools only with parental permission and department chair approval. To get around the rating (if the school hasn't banned R-rated films), teachers should obtain parent permission -- unless parents have already given the teachers a blank check regarding the curriculum. Even when not required by the school, it's wise for teachers to obtain parental permission, both on ethical grounds and to maintain a respectful relationship with parents.

I suggest writing a letter with a permission slip to parents indicating why you're showing the film, how it relates to the content of your course, the basis for the R rating, and your belief that students will be impacted positively by the film. You also should provide the option of not giving permission. These students should be given a library assignment related to themes in the film. My experience is that parents rarely refuse to give permission.

Teaching With Film

(Please note that while I'd love to use this with kids, I haven't. So the following ideas are what I'd do if I had the opportunity.)

First, even if you saw the film in a theater some months ago, watch it again. Also consider reading, or at least skimming, the screenplay which is available online for free (PDF, 348KB). I also recommend reading Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat's review, which provides some ideas that extend beyond mine.

In introducing Boyhood, share that it was filmed over 12 years using the same actors, which in itself is revolutionary in filmmaking. But tell them nothing about what to look for or what the film is about, its main themes, etc. Don't in any way preprogram their experience.

Here are some possible exercises to use with Boyhood.

1. Stepping Into Character

Assign students to shadow one character and try to identify with that character as they watch the film. Then, after seeing the film, students can share how it felt to be that character and how closely they did or didn't identify with him or her. The characters they'd select from would be the boy, his sister, his mother, or his father.

2. Points of View

Watch it through different "glasses" and in different roles. Students would take on this role and view the film as if they were this person. (The following are just suggestions.) I would assign these roles rather than allowing students to select one:

  • One of their own parents
  • An African-American or Latino adolescent, as there are almost none in the film (or you could ask the students of color in your class to just be themselves and be aware of whether that affects their response)
  • A film critic who is very positive about the film
  • A film critic who is highly critical of the film
  • A feminist (as noted below, there have been questions raised about the role of women in the film)
  • A typical American housewife and mom
  • An aspiring filmmaker

When the film is over, students would discuss their viewpoints with other students who had the same role. Then they would shift into groups with one student from each role, sharing their different perspectives. This could lead to a class discussion of how everyone sees a film very differently and the importance of listening to other points of view.

3. Autobiographies

The exercise that excites me the most is having each student write a two- or three-page treatment of a screenplay telling the story of their life from age six to the present. You might have them read about the process to give them an idea what a "treatment" is. (You could also just tell them to write a synopsis of their proposed screenplay.) Importantly, tell them to include only the scenes or moments that they'd be comfortable sharing publically. That's always a challenge for films based on the filmmakers' own lives.

Reading these will provide you with an opportunity to know your students better and connect with them through your feedback. But first, break them into small groups of three or four where they'll pass around their writings to be read by each group member, and then share their responses.

Extending the Discussion

These exercises might be enough for a small unit on the film. But if you have time, consider the following topics for discussion:

  1. The depiction of the role of women: How balanced is Linklater’s perspective? How close to reality? This article by Judy Berman can be helpful as background.
  2. The depiction of race in the film, especially the absence of non-white kids: Is this unrealistic? Is it racially biased? Imran Siddiquee's article covers that subject effectively.

These two pieces, both exploring the making of the film, might be great to use at the very end of your unit.

Here's a good video with Linklater’s perspective. And here's a very good TIME Magazine interview with Linklater and actors Ellar Coltrane (the boy) and Patricia Arquette (his mother).

Finally, I would ask students whether they'd recommend the film to friends and to their parents. I'd also ask them to consider prompting a discussion of the film with their parents, as it provides an excellent vehicle for parent-teen communication and connection.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Arts Integration
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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