There are two Richard Linklaters. There’s the Linklater who directs the kind of mainstream movies that call to mind summer afternoons spent idly wandering through the stacks at Blockbuster, letting your eyes sweep over the boxes, hoping to find something new or forgotten or interesting, always coming across the same unrented copies of Me and Orson Welles or Where’d You Go, Bernadette or Fast Food Nation, movies you can’t even remember if you ever saw but that have always seemed to just be there on the shelf. Neither offensive nor interesting, the kind of movies that feel like everybody mostly phoned in but still probably had a pleasant time making.
And then there’s Richard Linklater The Director With Something To Say. This is the guy who pours himself into his movies, sending them out into the world the way you’d send up a signal fire in the dark, lighting the path for others to find you. This is the guy who is fascinated by the effects on the body and soul wrought by the slow accretion of days and years, and whose movies are not so much stories as they are opportunities for characters to pinwheel into each other and try to grab something safe to hold onto as they careen through the brutal white-hot vacuum of existence.
This is the guy who turned teens on the brink of high school graduation into existential poets wrestling with their growing awareness of the height of the precipice they were standing on; who created a film trilogy about a pair of lovers where the installments are filmed years apart to capture a true sense of time’s passage and the change it brings to these people; and who, maybe most famously, spent more than a decade filming snippets of action and inspiration-reliant scenes to stitch together a portrait of a boy becoming a young man. This is the Linklater you think of when you think of “a Richard Linklater movie.” He’s the real one, marshaling the work and efforts of the other man into his own resources and opportunities. He’s the one who shoots his shot, because Boyhood is the kind of thing you can only pull off once, but if you do it right, that’s all you need.
Boyhood was released in 2014, playing Sundance that January before heading to theaters that summer, but it was in production from 2001 to 2013. There is no plot: rather, as Linklater recounted to a UK media outlet at the film’s release, he wanted to “tell the story of a parent-child relationship that follows a boy from the first through the 12th grade and ends with him going off to college. But the dilemma is that kids change so much that it is impossible to cover that much ground. And I am totally ready to adapt the story to whatever he is going through.” To do this, he cast Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr., the son of divorced parents Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia Evans (Patricia Arquette), with Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, playing the couple’s daughter, Samantha. Linklater and his small cast and crew would reunite annually in Texas to shoot more scenes, with minor storylines and emotional changes often inspired by the real lives of the principal cast. As in life, each year’s events were special and wound up influencing what would happen the next year.
When the film came out, the focus of the discussion of its grandeur revolved around the chance to see Coltrane grow up on film in a way we’d never seen someone do before, and indeed, it’s stunning to watch. There’s nothing at all wrong with the regular devices used in visual fictional storytelling to convey the passage of time, whether it’s old-age makeup, digitally de-aging someone, or just casting a “young” and “old” version of the same character. The inherent suspension of disbelief that powers all fiction allows this to work, and only a dead-eyed robot would raise a hand (or metal claw) in objection to point out that, say, the kid in the opening act of Goodfellas isn’t actually a young Ray Liotta. But to see an actual person grow like this in a feature film—not just in home movies or photos, but in a genuine cohesive work of art—is breathtaking. You realize there’s nothing else like it, and Linklater captured the gradual changes, the blend of boredom and excitement, the million paths you might walk but never do, all of it. Coltrane is a quiet and mostly reactive presence in the film, which makes him a less driven protagonist than usual but a perfect audience surrogate: we, too, are watching these things happen around us and are stunned by them, so we need the same amount of time to adjust that Coltrane’s character does.
Yet, years on, the power of the film’s other fragmented narratives is even more apparent, especially in the glimpsed life of Mason Sr. He begins the movie as a reluctant and mostly absent father, swanning into town for fun days and bowling trips while mostly leaving his kids to fend for themselves while they live with their mother, who eventually remarries. Mason Sr. plays some music locally and seems like the kind of person who is doing their best to stay very still and quiet in hopes that responsibility will just overlook them. As the years go on, though, we see Mason Sr. change direction in the way that billions of adults do: he remarries a woman who’s a devout Christian, and he respects her even if he isn’t all the way on board. It’s a shock to see him become so straight-laced after years wandering in a self-imposed wilderness. The shoe really drops, though, at a graduation party for Mason Jr., where father and son are standing in a restaurant looking over a balcony down at a band warming up. It’s the guys Mason Sr. used to play with, and for just a second you can see a shadow in his eye as he wonders what would have happened if he’d stayed on that road. Hawke’s expressions are quick and subtle here, but they still evoke that sledgehammer weight of: how did I get here? That’s the movie’s deep power. Like life, it lulls you into thinking that it’s just a series of disconnected scenes, populated by inconstant people with mercurial motivations. But then you step back from the tree and see the forest, and you’re rendered mute by the growth.
Linklater is currently working on another project in the vein of Boyhood: an adaptation of the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which will be shot over twenty years and then narratively arranged to work backward through time, moving from the character’s older life to his early days. When and if the movie comes out, we’ll all talk again about Linklater’s willingness to do unusual things to capture time on film. But it’s hard to imagine that this new project will have the impact and power of Boyhood. With the 2014 film, Linklater did something new and powerful, something almost revolutionary in its emotional execution. Like each of its fleeting moments, I don’t think that can be recaptured.