In Richard Linklater’s 1995 alt-rom Before Sunrise, American backpacker and supreme yakker Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has an idea for a 24-hour cable TV show that documents a man’s life minute by minute. “Wait, wait, all these mundane, boring things everyone has to do every day of their fucking life?” his French (and frank) love interest Céline (Julie Delpy) asks, unceremoniously parking her one-night-only lover’s big idea.
It is the kind of critique that could be applied to 53-year-old Linklater’s most autobiographical films. The lovers in Before Sunrise and its sequels simply walk and talk; the kids on the last day of school in Dazed and Confused (1993) drift on a cloud of pot; the slackers in Slacker, well, slack.
No wonder a passerby in that 1991 breakthrough thought to say: “Ain’t no film in this shit.”
But Linklater finds his cinematic language in the banal: a style that finds real substance this month with the release of Boyhood, his long-in-the-pipeline masterpiece. The premise is prosaic: documenting the fictional growth of one Texan boy, Mason, and his family over 12 years from 2002 as they move from house to house, go through domestic controversies and divorce, and Mason experiences first love and lost loves. That’s it. No dramatic plot twists, no catastrophic turn of events.
“And what they’re doing is pretty banal, you know?” Linklater tells Esquire. “Some films evolve around a plot point. Ours is really evolving around a maturing process. The film kind of rests on the cumulative effect of the power of you identifying with Mason’s family and hopefully you grow to care about them and they start to feel really familiar.”
Linklater began what was termed “The 12-Year Project” in 2002, casting six-year-old Ellar Coltrane in the lead role of Mason. Each year, he’d go back, shaping a narrative informed by Coltrane’s real-life experience growing up and Linklater’s own Texan upbringing as a child of divorce.
Boyhood is about Mason’s understanding of himself and the world around him: a world shaped by the personal politics of his separated parents (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) with the hum of wider politics as his home state goes from Red to Blue and into recession. All the while, this kid is growing up before anyone has a chance to fathom it.
“I wanted the film to flow really seamlessly, like the audience would get no clues from the film itself,” Linklater says. “Like I wouldn’t change film stock, I wouldn’t put up a card that said ‘2008’. There would be no indicators outside the subject of the film. So you’d noticed that someone’s grown, someone’s got a new hairstyle. I think that’s how we go through life. We don’t go, ‘Hey, I’m one year older’. It kind of flows.”
Time, which Linklater insists is the real lead of the film, takes its course just as it does with the kids’ last-day high jinks at Lee High School in Dazed and Confused, or the star-crossed lovers with separate trains to catch in Before Sunrise. When Céline crushes Jesse’s reality TV show dream, he retorts with a grander vision of watching time go by: “I was going to say the poetry of everyday life.” With Boyhood, Linklater has achieved that magnificently.
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