On the surface, it would be hard to think of two films more different than director Richard Linklater's most recent efforts, Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!!
The former, released in 2014, is the Oscar-winning, critically beloved, surprisingly profitable movie about one boy's coming of age, filmed over 12 years and edited together into a gigantic, beautiful montage where someone literally grows up and matures. It's an intimate epic, taking one boy's specific life and trying to find the universal in it, and it closes with scenes that are downright heartrending.
Meanwhile, the latter, newly playing in major cities and playing everywhere beginning Friday, April 8, is a ribald college comedy about a group of baseball players at a Texas university in 1980. They have a few days left before classes start and their lives settle into a routine. So they're going to spend those days drinking, smoking pot, carousing with pretty girls, and having a good time. The movie is incredibly funny, seemingly plotless, and mostly just about what it is to be young and carefree.
And yet this one-two punch confirms that Linklater is on one of the hottest streaks of his career, one that began with 2011's low-key charmer Bernie and continued with 2013's Before Midnight, 2014's Boyhood, and now 2016's Everybody Wants Some!!
After initially showing immense promise and then appearing to lose his way a few times, Linklater has finally settled into a nice groove where he's simultaneously one of America's best and most underrated directors, largely because he often doesn't seem to have an overriding style of thematic concerns.
But if nothing else, this phase of his career has proved he's had those concerns all along. We just had to know where to look.
Richard Linklater's movies are all about time
In retrospect, Linklater's major theme seems blindingly obvious, but the combination of Boyhood's 12-year sprawl and Everybody Wants Some!!'s condensed weekend underlines one simple fact: Linklater is our best living American filmmaker when it comes to the subject of time.
Time is a difficult subject. Sure, we know all movies have a certain running time, and we know their stories span a certain amount of time. But because of the way films are limited to a couple of hours, it's hard to really feel that time is passing in a visceral fashion.
Yet time is a major part of human life. We're trapped by it and subject to its passing. We long to escape it, hope to find ways to reverse it, and feel baffled when it passes too quickly. How do you make a movie about any of that?
Linklater's answer is usually to foreground the passage of time. Though few of his movies have what you'd call conventional three-act structures, a great deal of them feature what you might call a "ticking clock," a point at which the characters will run out of time before some new phase of their lives begins.
In Boyhood, that ticking clock is adulthood, which seems distant at the film's start and is embarked upon at its end. In Everybody Wants Some!!, it's the official start of a new school year, but Linklater literally puts a ticking clock on the screen at various points to drive home the fact that these boys' lives soon won't be their own anymore.
Perhaps the best example of Linklater's ticking clock is in his Before trilogy, in which every title — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight — establishes a rough "deadline" by which the characters Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) must make a major, life-changing decision.
These films play with time in other ways too, amounting to a sort of real-time Boyhood. Linklater and the two actors have reunited every nine years to film the newest chapter of the characters' story, beginning in 1995, continuing in 2004 and 2013, and hopefully resuming — though nothing has been promised — in 2022, 2031, and beyond.
But even Linklater's less obviously time-focused films contain elements of temporal playfulness. Even something like his remake of Bad News Bears (a stab at big studio glory that's one of his weaker films) uses the template of a baseball season to add a ticking clock, while his animated experiment Waking Life ostensibly takes place in the middle of a long, dream-filled night and has that most familiar of ticking clocks — of the alarm variety — theoretically hanging over it.
This might make Linklater sound like a director who's obsessed with, say, countdown scenarios. But, paradoxically, he's not. His ticking clocks work in opposition to his greatest strength, which is capturing all of life's micro-moments in their full glory.
Linklater also digs into the smaller moments that make life what it is
Everybody Wants Some!! is an excellent example of how Linklater showcases life's most fleeting details.
On its surface, nothing happens in the movie (which is, I should state again, terrific). The boys hang out and party. One meets a girl who might qualify as long-term relationship material. On Monday morning, class begins. That's about it.
But because Linklater is so good at capturing the particulars of these moments, and the way his characters speak and act, the countdown to the start of classes comes to carry a lot of weight. You realize, slowly but surely, that these were guys defined by the places they grew up. In a few days, they'll be defined by their status as star athletes at college, and by the classes they take and majors they pursue. But for right now, they're just young men, having fun, trying to figure out who they are.
Linklater has described Everybody as a "spiritual sequel" to his third film, the '70s high school comedy Dazed and Confused (where, incidentally, the action unfolds over the last day of school, and specifically one wild night). And there, as in his second film (and first narrative feature) Slacker, which brought him to national prominence, the focus seems clear: What's important in life aren't the big, dramatic moments or even the major changes. What's important in life is what happens between those moments, when people connect and life is honestly lived.
Nearly all of Linklater's films indulge in at least a little bush league philosophizing, and it's never entirely clear whether the director is enamored of his characters for considering life's larger questions, mocking them for doing so, or both. He is, after all, an Austin, Texas, native, and hippie moralizing is endemic to that particular city.
When the boy from Boyhood reached adolescence and started talking about the meaning of things, lots of audiences wrote it off as pseudo-profundity, the worst kind of pretension. Most Linklater fans knew it was just the director doing what he always does, this time through a more autobiographical vessel than usual.
But viewed in the context of Linklater's obsession with time, these moments take on a kind of poignancy, because this kind of philosophizing is most common in adolescence and in college. If we engage in it in adulthood, it's usually with someone we care about deeply (as with Jesse and Celine in the Before trilogy), because they're the only ones we would dare trust with something so likely to inspire ridicule.
Linklater is fond of holding shots for long, long periods of time. People often say this practice gives his films a shaggy quality, the sense that they aren't as tightly constructed or fully formed as they might be.
But that's the point. A genuine moment of connection, with friends or lovers or family, is gone the second it's over, and you're never getting it back. We're all marching along to a countdown clock that begins the instant we're born.
How Everybody Wants Some!! sums up Linklater's career
All of which brings me back to Everybody Wants Some!!, which is at once brilliantly structured and seemingly effortless. It's the kind of movie that feels made up as you go along but, once you look back on it, becomes all the more impressive due to how much work went into making it feel like it wasn't any work at all. It's one of the best films of the year so far.
But to compare and contrast it with Slacker and Dazed (the two films in Linklater's canon that have the most in common with it) is to see a filmmaker who's gone from being a young man to an older one, whose life is as subject to the pressures of time as anyone else's.
To be sure, you could see hints of this peeking through in the sad resignation of Before Midnight (where Jesse and Celine seem to realize that even the best relationships eventually enter ruts), or in the way that Boyhood looks back on both childhood and child rearing (indeed, one of the major characters is played by Linklater's own daughter, who also grew up on camera).
But at some points, Everybody Wants Some!! seems to want to reach through the screen and shake these boys, to tell them they only have so long before classes start and their lives are changed forever. And the way Linklater accomplishes this is as perfect and gentle as anything in his filmography, with a beautiful, sun-dappled meeting between would-be lovers in the early dawn, followed by that first moment of class, when a professor imparts a lesson the boys are still too young to understand.
It's not hard to read the film as Linklater trying to reach out to his characters, or even to his younger self, bearing gifts of age and wisdom that will only be ignored. Youth, after all, is wasted on the young, and the older Linklater gets, the more his films seem to age into his worldview. And time marches on.