In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.
Richard Linklater’s career, in part, has been an ongoing exercise in changing the way people think about masterpieces. It’s an overused critical shorthand meant to suggest a towering cinematic achievement, and as a result, we tend to think of masterpieces as imposing, intimidating, grandiose, visionary efforts. They can’t simply be great—they have to knock us on our ass, they have to floor us, they have to make us think, “I could never do something like that.”
Boyhood, like several of Linklater’s best films, does the exact opposite. His highlight movies are approachable, warm, unassuming. Not only do you think you could do them, if you’re an aspiring filmmaker you’re probably kicking yourself that you didn’t come up with the idea first. But then you’d have to execute the idea as well as Linklater does, and there’s no guarantee of that.
The tenets of Linklater’s filmmaking style are all over Boyhood, and just about all of them are overlooked and underappreciated in a culture that sometimes overvalues the grand artistic gesture. Tightly constructed scenes that give off the impression of being improvised, graceful tracking shots that are captured with a minimum of fuss, the profound and the playful intermingling: These are the building blocks of a movie about a kid growing up, but is also about his parents growing up, all of them moving forward toward who knows what. There probably isn’t a single shot in Boyhood that you’d want to turn into your background image on Facebook or Twitter: Nothing is showy or gorgeous in that way. But there are probably scenes you’re already referencing with your friends in casual conversation. Yeah, how great was it when Mason’s grandparents get him that gun? Or when he and his dad talk about the Star Wars prequels? Or the scene where his dad tells his kids about sex? Or the one where Mason and his sister meet that super-crazed Obama fan? Or the scene in Austin scored to Yo La Tengo’s “I’ll Be Around”?
Linklater’s films have often been able to capture significant shared moments in people’s lives—the rush of hormones and confusion of your teen years in Dazed and Confused, the wild possibility of new love in Before Sunrise—but he’s never done it as completely as he does in Boyhood. A generation removed from Mason, I can’t say I experienced any of the exact same things he went through: no midnight Harry Potter lineup, no post-Beatles mix CD from my dad. But all the generalities? Yes, as did most of us, and notice how little Linklater strains to make those connections between our lives and Mason’s. Actually, Boyhood has a double-barreled emotional effect: We see our past in Mason, but we see where we are (or where we’re going) in his parents. As more than one person has noted, maybe Linklater should have chosen the title of Roger Ebert’s documentary for his film: Life Itself is even more apt than Boyhood for what’s on display here.
But that would have run counter to the way Linklater operates. Life Itself is too momentous and too meaningful a title for a guy who prefers the no-big-deal shrug to the grand statement. (Consider that when he does dystopian paranoia, it’s through the goofy A Scanner Darkly.) Calling his movie Boyhood is as pretentious as Linklater ever gets, and you can practically hear some of the wilder yahoos from Slacker or Waking Life having a good laugh at his chutzpah. But the man’s earned it after so many years. In interviews, he’s noted that this is his first movie over two hours long—and it’s actually closer to three. But, he’ll add with a laugh, it took him 12 years to make it, so we can certainly spend the 160-odd minutes to watch it.
But is it a masterpiece? Too soon to tell. But give it time.
21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.