Richard Linklater is a director whose movies I’ve almost gone to see about a dozen times. I watched Dazed and Confused 20 years ago and it was not bad, and ever since I’ve just about seen every movie he’s made, but only actually got around to one or two. But a lot of people really like him, with critics particularly going wild over his latest, Boyhood.
In making this autobiographical movie about his childhood in Texas, Linklater used a cute gimmick. He started filming in the summer of 2002 with a seven year old boy as a fictionalized version of himself, and came back every year for a few days with the same cast through 2013 when the now strapping lad goes off to college to study photography.
It’s pretty good, although as the insidious Mr. Sneer says to the hopeful playwright in Sheridan’s 1779 comedy The Critic:
Sneer: Why then, though I seriously admire the piece upon the whole, yet there is one small objection; which, if you’ll give me leave, I’ll mention.
Sir Fret: Sir, you can’t oblige me more.
Sneer: I think it wants … incident.
Sir Fret: Good God! you surprise me! — wants incident!
Sneer: Yes; I own I think the incidents are too few.
Nothing much happens to the boy. It starts out with him being poor (he has to share a room with his bratty 9-year-old sister in a cheap Houston apartment) because his father (Ethan Hawke, good) and mother (Patricia Arquette, less good) have broken up.
But, over time, hereditary IQ wins out. Mom becomes a psychology professor and Dad gives up on his singer-songwriter dreams and passes all the rigorous math exams to be an actuary. The story in Boyhood is a mash-up of Linklater’s boyhood in the Houston area (Linklater’s mom became a professor at Sam Houston State) and Ethan Hawke’s in Austin (his parents met in college, then separated when he was four; his father became an actuary).
Mom gets married a couple of more times to ill-suited men. But nothing lasts (George Strait’s song All My Exes Are in Texas should have been on the soundtrack), in part because the new stepfathers don’t understand the boy, who, in contrast, has so much in common with his real father. Linklater’s subtext is that his mother and father should have gotten back together, but that never gets around to happening.
But, at least, housing is cheap, and college is practically free and not very hard to get into. Driving to college in his pickup truck, the lad stops to take some still lifes at the near ghost-town of Terlingua (namesake of the ultimate 1970s Texas alternative country album, Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua).
The notion of the Artsy Texan sounds oxymoronic, but I’ve known a lot of them. The low cost of living makes for an encouraging background for people with aesthetic orientations.
The movie is set in the present, but the uncompetitive way of life is out of the Baby Boomer past. Linklater is a year or two younger than me, and with my having gone to Rice U. in Houston in the 1970s, I very much recognized his characters as people I knew in Texas 35 years ago from the state’s bohemian 3-digit IQ set. The little boy grows up to be that kind of very deep-voiced dopesmoker; I knew about a dozen in high school and college.
So Boyhood was pleasantly nostalgic for me, but if you didn’t spend time in Texas in the 1970s I’m not sure how great the appeal would be. Linklater is kind of the opposite of another Texan arthouse director, Wes Anderson, whose The Grand Budapest Hotel will compete with Boyhood for a spot on a lot of critics’ lists come December. Anderson stylizes everything to within an inch of its life (with surprising success in his latest movie), while Linklater just sort of lets stuff happen.
Also, both directors have movie star alter egos: Wes Anderson and his college buddy Owen Wilson, while Linklater has Ethan Hawke, who is 9 years younger. Anderson and Wilson started out writing together but have increasingly moved in different directions as they’ve aged, while Linklater and Hawke seem to be getting even more on each other’s wavelength as their 9 year age difference becomes less important as their ages get higher. I earlier referred to this as Linklater’s autobiographical movie, but it might be just as much Hawke’s autobiographical movie, with Hawke playing his own father.
Both Anderson and Linklater would be really good if they were funnier (if you could combine the best of Anderson, Linklater, and Mike Judge into one, you’d have The Great Texas Director; maybe toss in Robert Rodriguez’s chutzpah, too).
The funniest scene in Boyhood comes in 2008 when the Bush-hating father is having his two kids hand out Obama lawn signs to neighbors. The angry white man with the Confederate flag tells them to get off his private property. At the next house, the nice white lady tells the adolescents how wonderful it is that today’s youth are getting involved in the democratic process, and then proceeds to tell the children at uncomfortable length about her erotic dreams involving Barack Obama.
That got a big laugh out of me, but most of the Arclight audience didn’t see what the joke was, and seemed to wonder why Linklater didn’t get back to making more fun of those horrible Texas Republicans.