by Noah White
The cinema of Richard Linklater can, at first glance, seem a little scattershot and lacking in the general thematic scope and sequence so essential to filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, and Wes Anderson. Linklater is known for bouncing from genre-to-genre, following the “one for me, one for them” model of filmmaking. But upon further inspection his filmography coalesces to a concern with human identity, and specifically that of the identities young people form (or don’t form) as they grow up; whether his films are about abstract ideas (Waking Life) or about a middling musician who just can’t let go of his dream (School of Rock), Linklater’s sincere, typically lighthearted, explorations of who we are as individuals is pervasive. The genre that Linklater is historically identified with, and the one that certainly made him a well-known director of independent cinema, is the coming-of-age genre.
Linklater’s concern with youth, culture, subculture, and identity has obvious beginnings in his first feature, Slacker, a collection of vignettes set in and around Austin, Texas. In his second feature, Dazed and Confused, we see him taking on the theme more directly, concerning himself primarily with how high school places teens into boxes, and the positives and negatives of that practice; in Everybody Wants Some!!, we see Linklater more interested in the ways we form our identities individually and independent of the boxes in which our social institutions place us. However, Boyhood, a film between Dazed and Everybody Wants Some!! (and Linklater’s true masterwork), seems to take a broader view of the issue of identities. Boyhood shows us that identity, to Linklater, is made in our formative years. Not from big moments, but from the tiny ones that we feel so intensely.
In one sense, Linklater’s coming-of-age films are explicitly concerned with identity insofar that all coming-of-films are concerned with it. But Linklater’s philosophy (lovingly characterized in equal turn as “stoner-philosophy” and “dorm-room philosophy”) is relatively unique, at least in its sincerity. Dazed, which follows a random assortment of high schoolers in the 1970s on their first night of summer, is relatively tempered in its outright philosophizing. Linklater, a child of the 70s, is more concerned with capturing a mood; discussions of identity, culture, and subculture are delightfully latent in the way he portrays the kids as they go about their night avoiding bullies, listening to music, cruising in their cars, and, yes, abusing various substances. But Dazed also is a treatment on how young people are typically fit into some kind of box in high school—the freshmen that the film concerns itself with are just trying to find a group to which they can belong, and the upperclassmen are all operating within their respective social cliques: football players, cheerleaders, stoners. It would be a stretch to say that Linklater is intending to make some grand statement about the issue of social identity for high schoolers, but the idea is explored at least implicitly.
Obviously, adolescence is an important time when it comes to finding an identity. Coming-of-age films typically, however, do a weird thing with this search for identity, and perhaps they’re more effective these days in this regard than they used to be, say, in the 80s and 90s. Stereotypically, coming-of-age films are filled with, well, stereotypes. You’ve got jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, goths, punk kids, all packaged neatly into social boxes and aesthetics. This characterization is a far cry from reality—teenagers are typically a mass of contradictions, with tastes that fluctuate from day to day, class to class, minute to minute, friend to friend. Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater’s most recent film of this stripe, ostensibly follows jocks. Set during the first weekend of college (before any classes start), our main character, Jake, is a freshman on the baseball team at some school in Texas. He’s bland white bread—a pretty face who soaks up everything around him and provides not a lot in terms of substance.
Jake’s identity should be in the fact that he’s a baseball player—a pitcher at that. And it is, mostly. But the film does an interesting, occasionally subtle, thing over the course of the weekend: the guys just kind of assume the identity of whatever activity they’re engaged in at the time. Whether it’s knowing the words to “Rapper’s Delight” by heart, changing into country/western gear before going to a honky-tonk, or moshing at a punk show, they’re able to embrace whatever subculture that comes at them. Throughout the runtime of the film, the guys on the baseball team try multiple identities, even though they ought to have a built-in identity already, being college baseball players. But as the film unspools, we start to see that even our preconceived notions of jock culture aren’t totally accurate. Sure, the guys in the film do fall into some cliché hyper-masculine stereotypes, but on further inspection we see a bunch of disparate personalities all brought together under one shared goal: baseballchasing girls. There’s your typical jock, a redneck, a California hippy, a total weirdo, the list goes on. Linklater shows us that college, more than anything, is a chance to break out of the proscribed boxes that high school often forces on young people.
The film is little more than a romp. Its grand summative statements are somewhat benign and easily forgettable. It feels, generally, like Linklater isn’t terribly concerned for us to remember the pseudo-philosophical ramblings that Jake produces in the film’s penultimate scene. This philosophizing here is old news for Linklater—a mere reiteration of the things that Dazed and Confused and Boyhood were able to provide in spades. In one sense, that’s a criticism of Linklater’s writing in Everybody Wants Some!!, but Linklater avoids letting that obvious dialogue be the lasting image we get of the film. No, other than a partially-nude Wyatt Russell doing a yoga pose in his room, the lasting image we get is of Jake nodding off in a large seminar class. Jake’s not really concerned with higher education, just having a good time.
The tactics that Linklater takes in Dazed and Everybody Wants Some!! are somewhat eschewed in Boyhood, a seminal work of filmmaking and an essential “greater than the sum of its parts” film. The film’s central premise—the fact that it was filmed over the course of twelve years with the same cast—is, frankly, a gimmick; but it’s a gimmick in service of highlighting the very nature of cinema: the way that time in cinema passes before our eyes. Filmmakers sculpt time (to use Tarkovsky’s phrasing) into the story they wish to convey. To use time in the way that Linklater does in Boyhood is to remind the audience, young or old, that the important things in life are not always what define us; sometimes it’s the little moments when we find our identities and who we are. Mason, the film’s titular boy, never has any really “big” moments. Even the moments that should be traumatizing, like seeing the aftermath of domestic abuse, seem to just be other moments in a vast collection of them. For example, Linklater places as much importance on the moments from a random adolescent night— in which Mason spends his time in a half-constructed house with his friends, drinking beer, lying about his sexual experiences, and throwing saw blades at drywall—as he does on the fallout of the abusive situation.
This scene in particular is typical of Linklater’s depiction of youth. He said (of Dazed and Confused, but it can be generalized to all of his coming-of-age films) that “I don’t remember teenage being that dramatic. I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in and be cool. The stakes were really low…It was really rare when the star-crossed lovers from the opposite side of the tracks and the girl gets pregnant and there’s a car crash and somebody dies. That didn’t really happen much.” Linklater realizes that, most of the time, the dramatic stuff doesn’t happen. Kids do dumb stuff and usually don’t suffer many consequences. All of this informs how he chooses to develop the identity of his characters, all of which are, if nothing else, distinct and realistic. It’s the little moments that shape who are—as often as (if not more than) the big ones.
In Boyhood, Mason is just another kid, floating through life — trying to have a good time, do what he loves, and get old enough to move out from under his mother’s roof. While Coltrane’s performance lacks something by way of polish and technical skill, there is a dopey earnestness to the way he delivers his lines. Mileage may vary from viewer to viewer, of course; but sometimes it is refreshing to see an actor totally exposed onscreen, only reacting to the situation and the direction he’s been given.
Boyhood is incredibly helpful in deciphering (if that task even applies) Linklater’s earlier work. If one is left feeling like the ensembles of Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! are aimless, plotless, and don’t have much to say, the deeply personal and specific character work in Boyhood allows Linklater’s central ethic of coming-of-age filmmaking to show through more intensely than before.
A loose sketch of these films shows Linklater’s understanding of how young people are shepherded and molded through life by the people and institutions around them. His protagonists don’t go through any significant changes or learn many important lessons, at least in the “after school special” sense. Big, defining moments may happen, of course. But by and large it is the sum of the little ones that shape us. We aren’t who we are because of dramatic flourishes and grandiose speeches; we are who we are because we, well, are.