Boyhood is a somewhat experimental film by Richard Linklater. It tells the story of a boy growing over the course of 12 years. Rather than use different actors, Linklater filmed it over 12 years, using the same actors so they would age naturally on screen. It was critically acclaimed as it was one of the most ambitious movies ever made.
Personally, it’s not one of my favourite Linklater movies. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fantastic achievement, and for the most part it is technically a good film. You can’t fault the cinematography, the performances, or the editing choices. You cannot deny that the filmmakers set an ambitious goal, and succeeded in that goal.
But, to me, it lacks a critical element. It doesn’t really have a story. There are no real arcs in the film. The movie plays out as several “slice of life” scenes as Mason Jr., the protagonist, grows into adulthood. Then the film just kind of ends.
Perhaps that was the point, and I’m missing it. Life isn’t really a story. There will be important events as you go through life that impact who you become. But people don’t live in a story arc. Things happen in your life, then it just ends.
It is still a good movie overall but, in my opinion, Linklater has already done this better Before.
Before Sunrise, released in 1995, tells the story of Jesse and Celine, two students who meet on a train. They end up spending a night together Vienna and slowly fall in love. They eventually arrange to meet each other again 1 year to the day at the same train station.
In 2004, 9 years later, a sequel, Before Sunset, was released focusing on the same two characters. Celine never showed up when Jesse went to meet her, because her grandfather was ill. Jesse moved on, got married and had a child. He wrote romantic novel about the girl he fell in love with in Vienna. Celine shows up at one of his book signings in Paris and they spend time reminiscing and catching up before Jesse’s flight back to the USA. By the end of the film Jesse ends up at Celine’s place and he misses his flight.
2013, another 9 years later we get another sequel. Celine and Jesse are married now and have 2 daughters. Jesse wants to move closer to his son, while Celine wants to take a job with the French government. They end up fighting for a lot of the film, before eventually reconciling.
Like Boyhood, we get to see these characters age naturally. The films are set 9 years apart, and are filmed 9 years apart as well. And like Boyhood we are seeing a snapshot of their lives. Usually within the space of 1 night, 1 day, a few hours.
Although we meet other characters in each film, the films focus on our two main protagonists. The films are almost a framing for a long conversation between two characters. They reminded me a little of My Dinner with Andre, except instead of two old friends discussing their adventures, we have two people slowly falling, and being, in love. They discuss falling in love, what could have been, and the meaning of commitment.
We see signs of their maturity as they get older. A good example of this is how they approach sex. In the first movie they are students, and only discuss doing the act only after they spend most of the night getting to know each other. They ultimately decide not to ruin the moment and save it for the next time they meet. In Before Sunset they talk and joke more openly about sex, comfortable that they won’t misunderstand each other or accidentally give the other the wrong idea. It’s also revealed they actually did have sex off-screen the first time they met. In Before Midnight they are about to have sex when an argument ensues. Celine spends much of this argument topless, but Jesse is not distracted by her nudity as the student from Before Sunrise might have been. At a few points in the argument it’s implied that they may have both cheated on the other at some point (though never confirmed), something that may have killed their relationship if they were younger.
What I find interesting about these movies is that if you take the first movie at face value it is a simple romance with a hopeful ending. We don’t know what happens after that day, but many people will be tempted to romanticise it. They meet again a year later, fall in love all over again, travel the world, and eventually settle down. But there will be doubts in our minds as well – will this really happen? The way we think about the ending is exactly what the characters are feeling.
Unlike a simple romance, however, we get a sequel. It is shown how Jesse followed his romantic impulses, and Celine couldn’t. Instead Jesse writes a book about the one that got away. He moves on, starts a new family. Then she walks back into his life. Jesse isn’t necessarily portrayed as a good person when he decides to miss his flight. But his actions are very human. Many of us have that one that got away and wonder what we would do if they came back. In Jesse’s case he abandons his old life in the hopes of a better one.
The final film touches on the fallout from that choice. Jesse is divorced and remarried, his ex-wife hates Celine (with good reason). His relationship with Celine seems otherwise healthy, but they are at a crossroads. Both of them want different things in their life now. They end up arguing and it seems almost impossible to reconcile. In the end they reconcile and move on. Their futures are still unclear, but they remain together.
The films show how even people in long term relationships will not always agree, and will not always be happy. Relationships are not about falling in love and happy endings. They take constant effort and work to maintain. They can be as messy as they can be wonderful. Many romantic movies will only show the beginning of a relationship and end too early. In a way Before Sunrise does this too, but the sequels complete the picture. Together, the films show us what real romance is, how it can be messy, how it can hurt just as much as make you happy, and how complicated it can be to maintain. True love isn’t a romantic gesture, it is being devoted enough to someone that you are willing to go through the difficult times with them, and willing to put in the effort to make each other happy.
We don’t know what happens to these characters after the trilogy. 2022 has already passed so who knows if we’ll get another sequel.
The reason I like these films better than Boyhood is because they tell a complete story. Though they are “slices” of their lives, much of what has happened between movies is easily inferred from their dialogue. And the films have a focus. Boyhood’s events don’t always have a direct effect on the rest of the movie. But the Before Trilogy focuses on the relationship between these two characters and, through small glimpses, shows us how their relationship evolves. Again, perhaps the point of Boyhood was that sometimes things happen and they are forgotten about for the most part. But I think that the narrative structure of the Before Trilogy helps to create a more entertaining experience.
Plus, I don’t think I’ve seen a better portrayal of a long term relationship in any other media.