Richard Linklater and I have one thing in common. We’re both from the most boring as fuck generation in American history. Late Boomers and early Gen Xers, we grew up in the shadow of the 1960s. By the time we reached young adulthood, the sexual revolution was over. The counter culture was gone. Yet the the huge Boomer generation, as self-obsessed and narcissistic as ever as they entered their 30s and 40s, weighed down on all of us. They were disillusioned. They wanted all of us to be the same. Most of us complied. We were dull, unsexy, unimaginative, and apolitical. Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s third film, captures it all. The tedious jock culture, the even more tedious stoner culture, the casual acceptance of bullying and sexual hierarchy, the lack of any real hopes or ideals, it was a rotten time to grow up.
I retreated into classic music and high culture, into Beethoven and A.E. Houseman. Richard Linklater, on the other hand, refashioned himself into Ethan Hawke, flew to Europe, and got on a train to Vienna from Budapest. There met Celine, an upper-middle-class French woman played by Julie Delpy. Before Sunrise Linklater’s best movie, isn’t really set in Europe. It’s set in the world that Linklater built inside his imagination, the utopian alternative to the prison-like Texas high-school of Dazed and Confused. Where the typical American girl, as exemplified by Parker Posey’s Darla Marks, is the jock culture’s social enforcer, the ugly American in a cheerleader’s skirt, Julie Delpy’s Celine is an alienated American intellectual’s dream come true, European high culture as personified in a beautiful woman.
Before Sunrise was so good that Linklater collaborated with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on two sequels. In 2004 came Before Sunset. Jesse is now a successful novelist, and Celine the director of a French NGO. They meet after a decade, and begin the relationship that, up until then, existed only in their nostalgic imaginations. In 2014, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke released Before Midnight. Jesse and Celine have been married for 10 years. He’s begun to worry that his success was just a fluke. She’s starting to obsess about getting old and losing her good looks. Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight were not only a successful trilogy of films, they represented the passing of time from the Clinton years, through the Bush years, to the Obama years in two individuals.
So why repeat the same formula in Boyhood?
I think Richard Linklater realized that you don’t necessarily express the passing of time simply by observing how your actors age over the years. Over the course of their 9-year run, for example, the cast of Seinfeld went from their mid-30s to their mid-40s, but the show said almost nothing about how American society changed during the 1990s. What’s more, by the time you get to your mid-20s, like Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, your personality is already formed. You may get older, uglier, and more cynical in your 30s and 40s, but you’re still pretty much the same person, even after your breasts begin to sag and your hair falls out. Jesse’s anxiety over whether or not he’s a genuinely great novelist and Celine’s concern that she’s not as hot as she was in 1994 might best be classified as “white peoples problems.” But the biggest issue with Before Sunset and Before Midnight is that Ethan Hawke just isn’t convincing as a famous writer. That he could defy the odds and not only make a living writing novels, but be able to afford to jet back and forth between New York and Chicago, seems more like a fantasy than a representative American Story.
In “Boyhood,” Linklater brings us back down to the lower-middle-class American reality. Jesse and Celine have become Mason and Olivia Evans, the divorced mother and father of two children, six-year-old Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, and his older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei. Boyhood, which Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years, therefore, allows us to watch the growth of two children into adults, a transformation far more dramatic than that of two twentysomethings eventually reaching early middle-age. Mason Evans, also played by Ethan Hawke is Jesse, but he’s a real life Jesse, not the Jesse that won the lottery. A would-be-musician, he spends most of his time working at marginal jobs, never quite growing up or settling down. Olivia, Patricia Arquette, does more than just fret about growing old. She grows old right before our eyes. If Jesse and Celine talk about separating in Before Midnight, Mason and Olivia have already done it. But there’s no fairy tale ending for Olivia. The men she moves onto from Jesse, a brutal, authoritarian, alcoholic college professor, and an ex-soldier with PTSD, are much worse, not only inadequate boy men who can’t quite grow up, but verbal abusers and wife beaters. Nevertheless, Olivia perseveres. She goes back to school, and eventually becomes a full-time college professor with enough money to send her two kids to four year colleges. She and Mason, who remarries, stay on good terms.
The first half of Boyhood is excellent. But “Boyhood” should actually be called “Motherhood.” Once the film loses its focus on Olivia and starts to follow Mason Jr., it begins to drag. Samantha, who might be the more assertive and intelligent of the two siblings, is pushed to the margins of the script. Mason Jr. is just not that interesting. In fact, he reminds me a little of Randall “Pink” Floyd from Dazed and Confused, a vapid stoner kid who talks about himself as a non-conformist, but who, unlike his mother, just seems to follow a script. Indeed, Mason Jr. doesn’t seem like a millennial generation kid at all. He comes off more like just another Gen Xer. Neither he nor Samantha seem to be worried about paying for college, which, for the two children of a divorced community college professor, would be a lot more daunting in the 2010s than it would have been in the 1980s. Mason Jr. is interested in (film) photography, but neither he nor his sister seem to have developed musical tastes or other cultural interests that would mark them off as distinct from their father. Couldn’t we at least have seen Mason Jr., just once, for example, try to explain hip hop to Mason Sr.? Isn’t there at least something, beside wear nail polish, he does that a teenage boy in the 1970s or 1980s wouldn’t have?
In other words, Mason Jr., for all of the artful illusion that he’s a millennial kid, and in spite of the fact that we watch Ellar Coltrane grow up right in front of our eyes, is no less a fantasy than Jesse from Before Sunrise. If Jesse was Richard Linklater’s alter ego in Europe, than Mason Jr. is Linklater living his childhood and youth over again in the Bush and Obama years. Linklater doesn’t manage the passage of time very well, something that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese do almost effortlessly. Early on in the movie, Samantha hums a Brittany Spears song, and, at the end, we hear a selection from “Somebody that I Used to Know” by Goyte, but neither Mason Jr. nor Samantha seems particularly interested in either. Mason Jr. goes from 6 to 18, but his style doesn’t seem to evolve along with his body. On the contrary, the older he gets, the more he starts to look like his father. That certainly happens in real life. But it does nothing to illustrate the passing of 12 years. The pretense of unvarnished, unscripted reality has become more oppressive than liberating.
Boyhood ends with Olivia shipping Mason Jr. off to Sul Ross State University, a rather dreary looking state college in southwest Texas. He meets his roommate. He meets Nicole, a young woman who will almost certainly become his next girlfriend. They go out into the desert to do mushrooms. “Aren’t we really all just living in the moment?” he tell her. No, we think, you’re not. You’re being dragged back down into the 1970s and 1980s. Rebel while you can.