Watching Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” at a preview screening recently, I felt that familiar burning in the back of my throat, the stinging in the eyes: I was choking up.
Nothing terribly heartbreaking was happening on screen: “Boyhood,” a mesmerizing chronicle of a child’s coming of age filmed over 12 years in the life of nonprofessional actor Ellar Coltrane, is mostly composed of scenes of everyday life. Coltrane, playing a Texas kid named Mason, starts out as a dreamy-eyed but watchful 6-year-old, developing as the film progresses into a gangly, slightly less spaced-out college freshman. As it traces Mason’s relationships with his estranged parents, older sister, teachers and friends, “Boyhood” captures a myriad of tiny, devastating truths about time, change, identity and evanescence.
The emotions coursing through “Boyhood” are powerful, but that’s not the reason why I was crying — or at least not the only one. For me, “Boyhood” evoked my own coming of age as a film critic, a period of growth and learning of which Linklater — probably unknowingly — was a crucial, benevolent part. In 1995, I was working as a freelance journalist in New York, reporting on a variety of subjects, including movies. I contributed occasional short book reviews, mostly to the New York Times. But when I was hired as a film critic at the Austin American-Statesman — the daily newspaper in the adopted home town Linklater so lovingly portrayed in his breakout film “Slacker” — my knowledge of cinema was limited to what I’d learned interviewing dozens of filmmakers and the film classes I took during an arts journalism fellowship.
I was thrilled to be moving to Austin, where I’d visited and fallen in love with the music, food and stunning natural environment. On one of my real-estate hunting trips, I realized the serpentine road we were driving on led to Mount Bonnell, the iconic Austin hilltop overlooking the Colorado River where the memorable final scene of “Slacker” is set. It felt like home. I sought out Rick almost immediately — not only because he was the hub of a swiftly emerging local film industry in the Texas capital but also because the organization he had co-founded, the Austin Film Society, was in the midst of celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Sitting amidst framed vintage film posters in his Detour Filmproduction office in a ramshackle former motel hard by I-35, the perennially boyish Linklater explained how he and other Austin cineastes came up with the idea of showing local audiences rare, hard-to-find films, whether classics of the silent era or bold, challenging works by experimental filmmakers. Noting that 1995 also marked the centennial of cinema itself, Rick invited me to find out more about AFS as I settled into the city. I did him one better: I joined on the spot.
Over the next two years I spent in Austin, I attended as many Film Society screenings as I could, not just because they were a lot of fun — and they were — but also to shore up my own scandalously limited knowledge of the art form I was supposed to be expertly interpreting every Friday.
Thanks to the Austin Film Society, I filled in gaping holes in my cinematic repertoire, including little-seen film noir classics like “T-Men” and “The Big Combo,” and further deepened my affection for nonlinear narrative at screenings of Maya Deren’s ethereal tone poem “Meshes of the Afternoon.” I sat behind a hungover Quentin Tarantino for a screening of the 1970s exploitation flick “Switchblade Sisters” — presented as part of QT’s annual pilgrimage to Austin to share favorites from his personal vault. (Lesson learned: Always watch a ’70s exploitation flick hungover — or better yet, still a little bit drunk.)
And it was thanks to the Film Society — as well as Linklater’s collegial, laid-back personal style — that I learned some of my most valuable and enduring lessons in how not to be a film critic. Although Linklater and I never became BFFs, I did become friendly with folks on his production team, especially cinematographer Lee Daniel and producer Anne Walker, as well as AFS staff members. It was Film Society director Elizabeth Peters who forever changed the way I define spoilers when she called one day about a review I’d written, very gently chastising me for giving away too much about the plot. Remember, she told me, giving away too much isn’t just about the ending: People want to see a movie for themselves, let it unfold on their terms and maybe be astonished along the way.
There were tougher lessons, too, usually the result of a rookie mistake. I happened to see an early screening of “Suburbia,” Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play. At a party at Walker’s house, I enthusiastically embraced Daniel, who as usual had done superb camera work on the film, and complimented Linklater on a job well done. When I saw the movie a second time, the flaws jumped out in much sharper relief, and I ended up writing a lukewarm to negative review, a reversal that I’m sure might have confused the filmmakers I’d so effusively praised just weeks before.
That episode taught me never to share my opinion about a film until I’ve written about it, a policy I follow with few exceptions to this day — to the endless frustration of studios and their press reps. It also demonstrated Linklater’s own remarkably serene temperament: If he was stung by the “Suburbia” review he never let on, a function no doubt of his own shyness but also consummate professionalism.
Since leaving Austin in 1997, I’ve maintained a proprietary, even protective interest in Linklater’s work, which has grown in scale, depth and stylistic breadth over the ensuing decades. Not only has he perfected the discursive, spontaneous style he introduced in “Slacker” in the “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” trilogy, but he’s skillfully executed more conventionally mainstream Hollywood narratives in “Bad News Bears” and “School of Rock.” He’s pioneered new visual forms in the animated speculative fantasies “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” then pivoted to return to small-canvas, regional storytelling for a darkly funny, richly faceted gem like “Bernie.”
Once or twice I’ve interviewed Linklater when he’s come through town, and he’s told me about a project he started in 2002, when he began filming an Austin kid named Ellar Coltrane, along with frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Linklater was always vague on the details, underplaying the project as an exploratory one-off experiment in the proud AFS tradition. But with “Boyhood” now a reality, it feels less like a lark than the crowning achievement of a great artist whose mission is nothing less than the restless, ever-questioning search for the American soul.
Working with his longtime editor, Sandra Adair, Linklater has created not just an absorbing coming-of-age tale or bravura example of auteurist audacity, but a deeply personal summation of the cardinal themes that have occupied him all the way back to “Slacker” — time, memory, reality, the shifting contours of self and cinema. Never one to kowtow to conventional three-act narrative, Linklater has perfected his oblique approach to structure with “Boyhood.” He dispenses with many of the predictable turning points of a young man’s life, instead lifting up the vagrant, instantly forgettable moments that make up experience. The result is a movie that’s a jumble of contradictory things all at once: unconventional, but also deeply familiar. Spontaneous and naturalistic, but also carefully planned and meticulously crafted. Radically intimate, but also universal, allowing viewers into the lives on screen not as specimens to be watched from a safe distance but as resonant, relatable touchstones of our own.
That’s why I cried during “Boyhood.” But I also cried at the echoes with the filmmaker’s own biography — a beautifully filmed, pastoral sequence set at a Houston Astros game, evoking Linklater’s own youth as a star baseball player; watching his daughter, Lorelei — who was a toddler when I left Texas — grow into a young woman in the course of 21 / 2 hours. I cried, not just at the content of “Boyhood,” which is moving enough, but the enterprise itself: As the arduous 12-year effort of so many of Linklater’s longtime collaborators — including Hawke, Walker, Daniel and Adair — it’s a breathtaking achievement, a product of vision and commitment, of leaps of faith and a deep sense of community and, finally, of love.
These thoughts all came in a rush as I watched “Boyhood,” as did a wellspring of gratitude to Linklater for helping me acquire the visual understanding and appropriate language that could begin to do justice to what he’s created. Rather than Austin’s highest hill, “Boyhood” ends atop the vast expanse of West Texas’s Big Bend National Park, but either way, Linklater has managed to take us to the mountaintop yet again.
Boyhood Opens Friday in area theaters. Rated R for language including sexual references and for teen drug and alcohol use. 164 minutes.