Boyhood Reveals What Richard Linklater’s True Subject Has Been All Along

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July 10 2014 12:35 PM

This Little Space in Between

Boyhood reveals what Richard Linklater’s true subject has been all along.

School of Rock, Boyhood, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Bad News Bears.
Richard Linklater's films, clockwise from top left: School of Rock, Boyhood, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Bad News Bears.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo. Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures, Sundance Films, Orion Classics, Universal Pictures, Castlerock Entertainment, Paramount Pictures

In his 2008 documentary Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, the director Richard Linklater profiled longtime University of Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido. The resulting film pays tribute to Garrido’s knack for motivating players and spurring them to be their absolute best selves. Linklater has a fascination with the mentor-mentee dynamic. “In some parallel universe, if I had not gone into filmmaking,” he has said, alluding to his Bad News Bears remake, “I may have been the coach cursing at the kids.”

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

But Linklater really has become a coach and mentor, in his way. When recently asked to describe Linklater’s directorial style, frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke responded, “Like a good athletic coach, he knows how to put you into position to do what you do well.” Linklater is legendary for his long pre-shoot rehearsal periods, during which he works with actors to integrate the performers’ authentic selves and current real-life concerns into their characters’ stories. Linklater is also the godfather of the Austin movie scene, creating countless opportunities and inspirations for young filmmakers. Most remarkably, when his 2011 film Bernie helped contribute to the early release from prison of convicted killer Bernie Tiede, Linklater invited Tiede to live in an apartment above his garage. Mentoring murderers would seem to be above and beyond the duties of even the most dedicated counselor.

And now there’s Boyhood, which is, at its core, a nature-of-selfhood study about mentors, peers, parents, and lovers all shaping the development of one young man’s identity. Boyhood’s Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) deals with lectures from not one, but two alcoholic stepfathers who accuse him of entitled laziness; from a photography teacher who presses him to challenge himself; from a boss who thinks he’s shirking work; from parents who needle, support, and guide him. He spends an evening in the lair of some older teens, who throw him cans of beer and threaten to sic a prostitute on him. He gets dumped by a girl who breaks his heart and accuses him of “trying to be an asshole.” As Mason ages, we wonder: Will he morph into a jock, as a result of golf lessons from his jerky stepdad? Will he become a musician—the dream his father abandoned in favor of a steady job and a minivan? Will he cave in to his boss and become the best fry cook in eastern Texas? Or will the chance gift of a camera from one of those brutish stepdads transform him into a photographer?

The media coverage surrounding the film has understandably centered on the movie’s unique, 12-year shooting schedule. Linklater himself has said he conceives of the film as a “kind of flowing time sculpture,” and in her review for Slate, Dana Stevens argues that there are “few feature films in the history of the medium that have explored the power, and the melancholy, of film’s intimate enmeshment with time in the way Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does.” Given his previous catalog—the multidecade arc of his Before trilogy, plus the curious fact that his first four films (and three more since then) each unfold within discrete, 24-hour time periods—it’s clear that Linklater is smitten with the cinematic possibilities of radical chronology. When I watched every extant Linklater film back in 2012 for a piece about his oeuvre, I termed him “perhaps our most Buddhist filmmaker—in the sense that he is forever meditating on the present moment, the impermanence of it, the effort to mindfully inhabit it.” This has become only truer since, as Linklater has released Before Midnight and Boyhood, two more films that attempt to distill meaning from the passage of time.

But a separate, less formal, and more emotionally foundational thread traces its way through this auteur’s output, and it, too, has been brought into sharper relief by his most recent movies. More than any other American director I can think of, Linklater has made it his project to chronicle the ways in which we mold and, in turn, are molded by the other people who float through our lives. Linklater is a sort of personality psychologist disguised as an independent filmmaker, and Boyhood is the culmination of his work so far: a project that, like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Terrence Malick’s similarly Texas-set The Tree of Life, attempts to fully capture the kaleidoscope of experiences, from the transcendent to the mundane, that coalesce in one boy’s maturation. What seems to interest Linklater above all else is the mélange of social inputs—parental hang-ups, community norms, serendipitous encounters—that work in concert to create the complex, self-contradictory beings we eventually become.*

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.)