The 1993 Richard Linklater film “Dazed and Confused” is one of my favorites, and a few weeks ago I rewatched it with a friend who loves it just as much as I do.
Unlike most films about high schoolers, “Dazed and Confused” is not about a life-changing, coming-of-age moment — at least, not explicitly. Rather, it is about how it feels to be in high school. And not just any high school. Specifically, the last day of school at a Texas high school in the 1970s, as the seniors-to-be embark on a summer-long hazing of the upcoming freshmen.
Even if you didn’t go to high school in Texas in the 1970s, the film captures something universal about high school: The restlessness, the sneaking suspicion that life would be more exciting if you just lived somewhere else, the desire to hang out with friends and listen to music and talk long into the night. The action takes place over the course of a single day, and by the end of the film you feel like you have witnessed a day in the life of some American teens.
“Dazed and Confused” is Linklater’s second film, and suggests that even as a young filmmaker he was interested in depicting the passage of time. His much-praised relationship trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight,” has tracked the ups-and-downs of a relationship, from its genesis as a one-night stand to a rocky partnership that involves jugging career, family and bitter resentments.
Now Linklater has made “Boyhood,” which shows a child becoming a young man. Filmed with the same cast over the course of 12 years, it provides a cinematic illustration of the famous William Wordsworth quote: “The Child is father of the Man.”
“Boyhood” focuses on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who is 6 when the film opens. His parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) are divorced, and it has been about a year and a half since Mason and his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) have seen their father. But one day he shows up for a visit, and both kids are delighted to see him. One of the pleasures of “Boyhood” is getting to know Mason and his family, and seeing Hawke and Arquette transition into middle-age: By the end of the film, they are both older and wiser — their faces are lined, they’ve put on weight and they seem wearier. Not necessarily unhappy, but wearier.
Despite its improvisatory, experimental feel, “Boyhood” is scripted and loosely plotted: One major plotline concerns Arquette’s bad luck in love. She marries a SPOILER ALERT! community college professor, only to discover that he’s a drunken wife-beater. The scene where Arquette, Mason and his sister leave the professor is one of the sadder ones in the film. Not because they’re leaving, but because the professor’s two biological kids are stuck with him, and will never see Mason and his sister — with whom they’ve grown close — again. This marriage is followed by another failed marriage to an Iraq War vet, also an alcoholic.
Linklater approaches the drama in his characters’ lives in a variety of ways: We see Arquette and the kids flee the community college professor, but we don’t see the events that led to the Iraq vet’s departure. One year, he’s in the film, and the next he isn’t.
In his first starring role, Coltrane is terrific, and one of the things I enjoyed most about “Boyhood” was that its protagonist is unusual. Sure, he engages in the typical rituals of childhood and the teen years — we watch him fall in love, and drink beer and smoke pot. But we also see him develop an interest in the arts: He aspires to be a photographer, and he enjoys reading. And he’s an introvert, which I appreciated it. Rather than crafting his film around an extrovert with a natural desire to be the center of attention or the life of the party, Linklater and Coltrane created a character who doesn’t always fit in with his peers, who might be more of a background character in another film.
Linklater could just as easily have made a film called “Girlhood,” about Mason’s sister, or a film called “Parenthood,” about his parents, and there’s a part of me that wishes Linklater had also made those films, in addition to this one. But life is full of choices (which is one of Linklater’s pet themes), and Linklater chose to focus on Mason. As portraits go, it’s a beautiful one — knowing, finely observed and patient. It’s also consistently hilarious, philosophical and very moving.
As directors go, Linklater never tries to wow the audience. He’s more interested in the smaller moments that comprise everyday life than big events, though we do witness certain milestones, such as Mason’s high school graduation party (though not the graduation itself). He wants to explore what it’s like to be Mason — to show viewers how Mason thinks and experiences the world, to depict the gradual process of growing up in an ever-changing world. Like “Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood” gives viewers the feeling that time is passing right before their eyes. But where “Dazed and Confused” was a snapshot of a time and a place, “Boyhood” is more like a photo album with 12 years of pictures crammed inside.
“Boyhood” is a terrific film, but Linklater has been making terrific films throughout his entire career. Thanks to “Boyhood,” he’s finally getting the attention and widespread acclaim he deserves.
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