Director Richard Linklater has always been fascinated with time. Languid, flowing dialogue may be one of his signatures, but several of his films are constrained by deadlines. His dramas Tape and Before Sunset take place in real time. The cult classic Dazed and Confused is confined to the last day of school, and the several hours of relief and partying after the final bell. His newest effort, Everybody Wants Some!!, which takes place over the last weekend of summer, seems ambitious by comparison.
Regardless, the most time-centric of his films is likely 2014’s Boyhood. By now, you probably know the story of its production. Linklater shot the fictional story of a young boy’s coming-of-age for a few days annually over a span of 12 years. He cast real actors to play the parents, friends and teachers the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), meets along the way. The results were sublime, although audiences searching for deft plotting and compelling characters could have been confused by the critical rapture the drama received. (It’s still the only new release to earn a perfect Metacritic score of 100.)
What is so marvelous about Linklater’s opus about growing up is that despite boasting a schedule of production no other film can match, the drama feels grounded and ordinary, even somewhat slight. Through capturing a flurry of random moments from Mason’s life, such as moving to a new city and camping in the woods with his father, the drama comes from the sorts of small incidents that classic Hollywood narratives generally exclude. Mason doesn’t become an interesting character until about halfway through Boyhood; the film’s ending, almost mid-sentence, shows that he is still a person in development, and his story isn’t quite finished.
How good is the film as a chronicle of actual, well, boyhood? There are a few stories that continue from year-to-year, although much of that coherence comes from the maturation and recurring appearance of Mason’s parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). As an examination of young masculinity, it actually isn’t that comprehensive. The most deceptive thing about Boyhood is its title: it actually represents the time span of the story more than the subject of the film.
Curiously, there was another film from 2014 with a similar title that managed to have the thrust of plot that Linklater’s film lacked. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and also played at TIFF, tells the story of Marieme, played by newcomer Karidja Touré. A black teen living in the Paris suburbs, Marieme’s life changes when she becomes part of a girl gang. (The film’s French title, Bande de Filles, means “gang of girls,” which suggests that the film’s English translation may have been a way to counter the success of Boyhood.)
Titles aside, the American and French films do not have too much in common. Girlhood takes place over a few years (rather than a dozen) and tells the story of how a shy high-schooler became the leader of a popular group of girls. As Marieme’s social currency rises, her economic prosperity diminishes: she shoves off school and turns down lucrative jobs, even as she gains a fierce self-confidence. But her change from the beginning to the end of the film is very clear. She has gone through a narrative trajectory, and the few moments we see on the screen all have repercussions on Marieme and the people in her life.
Boyhood reaches out for memories both mundane and unique, showing how adolescence is but a series of moments.
Linklater’s drama is unique for its scope, as it tries to encompass a reach of chronological moments into one loose narrative. But the film achieves emotional resonance because it doesn’t employ the same attention to story structure as other coming-of-age films. It accepts that people can come of age without having transformative experiences. Many of the scenes from the first half of the film are superfluous to the second half; however, this makes thematic sense. How many moments from our childhood necessarily impact our future? Through framing the film like a moving photo album of elegantly acted asides, we register the fleeting ways of youth, there and gone with only a filmic trace. Although the film runs 165 minutes, it flits through each year of Mason’s maturation so quickly that the duration feels much shorter.
Mason is an endearing character, although until the latter half of the film, he is rather passive. Until then, the drama is most interesting when we focus on the boy’s relationship with his hard-working mother and often absent father. He is still a character defined by the results of a divorce, and many early scenes show Mason reacting to his mother’s new boyfriends and trying to make up for lost time with his father.
Girlhood, on the other hand, almost never shows Marieme interact with her parents. (Her father is never seen, her mother only twice.) The dynamics of her personality come through in interactions with friends. The first scene of the film shows a football match between two teams of young women, and you have to seek out Marieme from within the throng of teenagers. As the women return to an apartment complex, they quiet down and slowly split apart into their own cliques. It is only when the camera sticks with Marieme as she departs from her friends that we realize whose story we are about to see.
As a specific, urgent work of burgeoning adolescence, Girlhood thumps with swagger and energy while also insightfully looking at the many dimensions of its protagonist.
Boyhood is 52 minutes longer than Girlhood, yet we leave the latter film with a greater knowledge of the young protagonist. Marieme’s journey gets punch because it focuses just on vivid moments – a raucous dance party in a hotel room, a fight with another girl, a scintillating sexual encounter with her crush – and little else. The many scenes are organized according to a linear path, as Marieme’s popularity and self-esteem rises. Sciamma’s drama, with a more immediate bent toward fulfilling a closed narrative, is a much more invigorating film than Linklater’s.
In the French drama, the camera sometimes stays on Touré’s protagonist without ever straying from her gaze. During her first shopping excursion with the three girls in her gang, Marieme barely says a word: we watch her trying to evaluate what the other girls think of her. After receiving validation from this small social circle, Marieme takes on another persona – as Vic, short for “victory” – that comes to be her alter ego. The last two thirds of Girlhood shows the extroverted side of the young woman as Vic, as she parties, shoplifts and tussles with other gangs. At the same time, Marieme’s more inquisitive side never quite leaves, as she tries to make a move on a neighbourhood crush and avoid the ire of her domineering older brother.
Much more of Boyhood is dedicated to the stories of people on Mason’s periphery. Mom Olivia bounces between a collection of unfortunate boyfriends and husbands as she tries to raise a family and work on her own career as a professor. Dad Mason Sr. regrets not being around his kids but ends up switching career paths and marrying someone new. Ultimately, Boyhood is just as much about Mason’s parents: one can even argue that Olivia and Mason Sr. change more over 12 years than their budding boy.
That film is more concerned with the handling of small, peripheral moments: being dropped off for school, masculine bonding at a friend’s house, seeing concerts and baseball games. Boyhood reaches out for memories both mundane and unique, showing how adolescence is but a series of moments. Character development shouldn’t be expected until Mason starts to mature into a teenager. But, while there may not be a lot of incidents, there is insight.
Sciamma’s drama, meanwhile, is more conscientious of elements like gender and race. Performance is a key motif of Girlhood. The film focuses on the way Marieme moderates her own femininity, as both herself and as the bold, popular Vic. In some moments, she is sullen and suppressive her emotions; in others, she intimidates and gangs up on more sensitive characters. As a portrait of being a woman, Girlhood is adventurous in the facets of identity people choose to show in different circumstances.
While Boyhood follows Mason through the grades, Girlhood‘s Marieme neglects her studies and never pays much attention to her schooling. Sciamma finds more interest in aspects of the woman’s personality that doesn’t concern her development into a citizen of society, moving into college and beyond. In comparison, it would have been odd for Linklater’s portrait of youth to not end with Mason starting college.
In Linklater’s drama, we realize just how quickly puberty makes its mark on someone: within a few years, Mason moves from showing a vague interest in girls to making out with a classmate in the back of a station wagon. Interestingly, it is in the scene when a photography teacher chats with Mason, in an attempt to instill discipline within the teen, where the film begins to concentrate as well, pointing Mason toward university, a job and a girlfriend. (The director’s positioning of Mason as an aspiring photographer may be a reflexive device that mirrors Linklater’s role as a motion picture filmmaker, as he tries to develop a work of enormous ambition through fledgling moments.)
Through their explorations of growing up and figuring out one’s place in the world, Linklater and Sciamma show the different ways one can capture the brevity of youth in cinema. As a specific, urgent work of burgeoning adolescence, Girlhood thumps with swagger and energy while also insightfully looking at the many dimensions of its protagonist. Boyhood isn’t as effective as a character study, though, but it does work as a reflection of time’s passage and the moments that resonate. Nevertheless, both films finish in places that aren’t so much conclusions as separations between the early chapters of life and what’s to come.