Why Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ Should Not Be Rated R

In order to accurately depict the process of growing up onscreen, the only option is to film the whole thing in real time. At least, that was the philosophy of Richard Linklater, who just released the trailer for his epic Boyhood. Filmed over twelve years, the movie follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through his childhood and adolescence, and his relationship with his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) as it changes and grows over time. Linklater gathered the cast and crew together once a year to film, so that he could adapt the events of the film to reflect what Coltrane was going through, and best capture the realities of growing up.

The trailer gives a look at some of those realities that Boyhood will chronicle, from Mason making friends at school to having his first beer, bonding with his father while bowling to fighting with his sister in the backseat of the car, and everything in between. It seems as if the film is going to tackle the major aspects of growing up from a more frank, realistic standpoint, which should help make this contained, personal journey feel relatable. However, despite its universal appeal, the film may have a hard time reaching a wider audience than the critics and Linklater fans who are already waiting impatiently for its release, as the MPAA gave Boyhood an R rating. 

According to the film’s IMDb page, the rating was determined based on “language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.” The rating has upset fans and critics who are concerned that such a high rating for only language seems to show a bias against art films, especially since many of the major blockbusters currently in theaters feature graphic violence or harmful depictions of sexuality, yet received a lower rating. The MPAA has a history of giving violent films lower ratings than ones that deal with sex or foul language, and it has long been an issue of contention between the organization and filmmakers who don’t want to see their films struggle to find an audience due to a high rating. 

Boyhood already has an audience waiting to see it upon release, and it will likely have no trouble attracting other moviegoers who are interested in the concept of the film or are looking for a good independent film to support. But the film is losing a decent part of its audience who might be hesitant to see it or take their children to see it based on the rating. Because it spans the entire adolescence of the character, Boyhood might appeal to parents who are looking to take their kids, whether as an entertainment or bonding experience. But an R rating might make parents wary of the content of the film, and therefore less likely to see it. 

Boyhood, TrailerUniversal Pictures UK/YouTube

Even if the rating doesn’t turn off audiences, it does make a realistic depiction of sexuality and the questions that arise on the subject during adolescence less accessible to young people, who are the ones that most need to see it. Plenty of films and television shows that don’t earn parental guidance warnings or high ratings often have damaging, exploitative depictions of sexuality, and when those damaging perspectives are the most accessible and most common, society’s view is damaged as a result. It can be argued that such high ratings are a way to protect people who might be too young to experience conversations about sexuality, but they can just as easily see a film with tons of graphic violence without having to be older than 13.

Of course, the high rating could be due to the teenage drug and alcohol use mentioned the rating’s description, and while graphic depictions of drinking or drug use might be considered inappropriate for young people, it also ignores the fact that many of the people who are “too young” to see Boyhood have likely already been in a similar situation at some point in their lives. A film like Boyhood might be able to give people an opening to talk about those situations, which would only lead to young people becoming more educated about things like drinking and drug use. Not to mention the fact that TV shows set in high school frequently deal with teenagers drinking and doing drugs, and yet those aren’t restricted by age. Unless there’s a segment of Boyhood that evokes part of Requiem for a Dream, it seems unlikely that the substance use depicted would be worse than anything that’s shown on the average CW show. 

The whole point of Boyhood is to make a film that reflects the universal experience of growing up, and so giving the film an R rating drastically cuts down on the amount of people that would be able to connect with it. It also underestimates the maturity and intelligence of teenagers by assuming that they are unable to appreciate a frank depiction of the kind of issues they deal with every day (and it also underestimates what teenagers get up to when they’re on their own). It’s one thing to attempt to shield them from subjects they’re not old enough to handle, but making realistic depictions of teenage life inaccessible to teenagers actually causes more harm than good in the long run.

Boyhood arrives in theaters on July 11.