Richard Linklater's “Boyhood” is a masterpiece. Full stop. It's an effortless piece of humanist filmmaking we don't often see, particularly on these shores where the Hollywood machine has forever altered the concept of what a movie should be, where independent cinema is pushed to the fringes while soaring budget gambles dominate the status quo and the middle ground of American cinema is consistently eroded. “Boyhood” is, at last, I think, the film Linklater has been striving toward his whole career. It is his Truffaut film.
When the director was making the press rounds last year for “Before Midnight,” I sat down with him and star/co-writer Julie Delpy to discuss their journey with that story and those characters over the course of three films and 13 years. The expectation for more adventures in the life of Celine and Jesse had already set in, and Linklater joked that he would like to jump genres as an ode to Lindsay Anderson's Mick Travis trilogy (wherein Malcolm McDowell plays the same character, though not really, in completely different situations in “If…,” “O Lucky Man!” and “Britannia Hospital”).
But then he started talking about François Truffaut's work with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud and the character they created and explored together over the course of five films and 20 years: Antoine Doinel. Beginning with 1959's “The 400 Blows,” which introduced the world to Doinel as a child in a masterpiece of the French New Wave, Truffaut and Léaud came back to the character in the short film “Antoine and Colette” in 1962 and the features “Stolen Kisses” in 1968, “Bed and Board” in 1970 and “Love on the Run” in 1979. Throughout much of the series, Claude Jade starred as Doinel's love interest, Christine.
“I wonder if Truffaut had lived, would there have been more Doinel films,” Linklater wondered aloud with Delpy at the time. “It would be interesting to see him as an older man. That's a great loss. I think they would have continued making more of those.”
But while the stunt, as it were, of following a single actor as a single character over a number of years is exciting, that's not what makes “Boyhood” such a significant piece of storytelling. It's what makes Linklater's vision possible, sure, as it roots the film in a naturalism as the audience witnesses the progression of its characters without any jarring casting changes and what have you. But what the film is is the culmination, I believe, of Linklater's proclivities as an artist. His mission statement could really be traced all the way back to the opening scene of his debut film, 1991's “Slacker,” in which the filmmaker stars briefly as a man taking a cab from the bus station.
The character seems in some way obsessed with the mundane details of life, perceiving them as part and parcel of a cosmic kaleidoscope of possibilities. Recalling the premise of a book he read, the man tells the uninterested cab driver that “every thought you have creates its own reality.” He goes on to envision a scenario where he didn't take the cab at all, where he met a beautiful woman at the bus station and she gave him a ride. They played pinball. They moved in together. It's all so ordinary yet fascinating to the man, and that, I believe, is what attracts Linklater to storytelling. It's all boiled down in the final note of “Boyhood,” where his subject, by then starting college, considers the notion that life is made up of all of these seemingly regular moments, that it's always “right now,” and that it's important to recognize that.
Linklater recognizes that. So, too, did Truffaut, who for all his admiration of Alfred Hitchcock, straining to emulate the master in his own thrillers, nevertheless seemed tethered to the humanism of his other idol, Jean Renoir. And like Truffaut, Linklater has found himself caught between his identity as an observer of human condition and a stylist influenced by Hollywood. It's an intriguing tug of war that has only deepened his grasp of form and the confidence that was already evident in “Slacker.” The result is something so refined and graceful that you can only gasp. “Boyhood” bears the kind of engaging authenticity filmmakers spend entire careers trying to capture, yet it appears to be Linklater's second language.
Artists like that belong in the pantheon.
“Boyhood” opens in limited release July 11.