Beginning with his debut, Slacker—which famously lacks traditional character arcs and narrative—Linklater’s muse has been social collision, so to speak. That film doesn’t have a plot, really, it just follows folks as they encounter one another in bars and on sidewalks around Austin, bouncing off each other’s vibes and redirecting onto new trajectories. Though the structure may appear random—it seems vaguely modeled on the classic pinball machines that repeatedly pop up in Linklater’s films—it is in fact governed by the interplay that happens when diverse personalities rub elbows. A soliloquy from one character ignites a notion or a craving in the next. Each momentary relationship has consequences that endure.
In Slacker, the interpersonal dynamics are, well, slightly impersonal, as dozens of strangers brush briefly against each other and then move on. But the idea that our social interactions are the building blocks of our identities seems to have crystallized by the time Linklater made his third film, Before Sunrise. In a memorable monologue, Julie Delpy’s Céline character declares, “I believe if there's any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us. Not you or me. But just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.” The Before movies are a triptych portrait of two people who meet by chance, each throw a pebble into the other’s soul, and then watch the ripples spread for the rest of their lives.
Even when Linklater took a midcareer, mainstream swerve with a pair of kiddie flicks, he notably continued to explore the ways in which we shape those around us, and are shaped in turn. The booze-soaked baseball coach of Bad News Bears and the accidental music teacher of School of Rock are both unconventional authority figures who—over time, and reluctantly—come to appreciate the emotional rewards they derive from sculpting the psyches of their youthful charges. They not only tend their flocks of impressionable moppets, they are themselves profoundly changed by the experience.
In Dazed and Confused, another of Linklater’s many tales of youth, several of the film’s multiple teenage protagonists navigate broad social hazards—overbearing authority figures, suffocating high school conformity—to figure out what sort of people they wish to become as they slog through adolescence. Consider Randall “Pink” Floyd’s refusal to sign a clean-living pledge being pushed upon him by his football coaches. Or geeky Mike Newhouse’s calculated decision to start a fight—stemming from his need to assert his autonomy in the face of all the “dominant male monkey” meatheads around him at school. Moments like these are ingredients in the recipe for self-definition.
There’s a pop-culture riff in Boyhood about the post-breakup work of the four Beatles. The key thing to understand about the band when it was cruising along, according to Ethan Hawke’s character, is that the beauty and genius of their songs came from “the balance,” the interplay of four very different personalities: Paul’s affability, George’s earnestness, John’s searching emotionality, and Ringo’s talent for appreciating good fortune.
This stirring together of souls—social collaboration that leads to personal transformation—is the basis of all of Linklater’s finest work. Yes, as the New York Times recently wrote of Boyhood, time itself is “a lead character” in Linklater movies. But those heightened moments that are the signature element of his films aren’t simply about time passing. They’re about time pausing, slowing, and attenuating during those instants when we try to understand someone sharing something.
Correction, July 11, 2014: This article originally misspelled the title of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (Return.)