Any conversation about Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s lyrical new film, begins with its concept: the movie was made over a 12-year period with the cast reconvening annually. The Texas-set bildungsroman tells the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from grade school to when he starts college. It’s a conceit that recalls Michael Apted’s Up documentaries, except that it's a fictional story with a recognizable cast. (Ethan Hawke, looking like a boyish ‘90s heartthrob at the beginning, is ravaged by both time and questionable facial hair.) But though Linklater's film may be unique in its execution, it represents a quiet sort of maximalism for which Americans have unexpectedly developed an appetite.
Just as Boyhood has become the most critically-acclaimed movie so far this year, the literary event of 2014 has been America’s love affair with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Like Linklater's film, Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600 page epic is, at face value, an absurd undertaking that would have anyone questioning Knausgaard's sanity. The books ranges from the death of Knausgaard's father, to his marriages, childhood (his third volume happens to be called Boyhood Island), fatherhood, and voice as a writer. Pick your adjective—it's a herculean/gargantuan/Brobdingnagian effort that's being called one of the first literary masterpieces of the 20th century. Others say it's like watching paint dry.
A common way people often talk about My Struggle usually goes something along the lines of: “This shouldn't work at all, but it does." Boyhood could be described the same way. Both have lengths and structures that are daunting and pretentious, with subject matter that's about as un-sexy as it gets. Boyhood is neither a teen adventure filled with parties and hook-ups or a dark family drama. Rather it revels in the quiet, often mundane ways we discover who we are. Give yourself over to it, however, and and the rhythms of the movie begin to sink in. Nostalgia may be a hell of a drug, but Linklater and Knausgaard give us the opposite of a fleeting high.
In a decade where information travels at light speed, Linklater and Knausgaard created remarkably reassuring monuments to the here and now. Like My Struggle, Boyhood isn't a sweeping social proclamation, but thousands of small indignities cobbled together. The occasional life-affirming flashes of brilliance are sandwiched between the most mundane aspects of everyday life. In one standout scene of Boyhood, Ethan Hawke's character has his kids install pro Obama lawn signs around in neighborhood. While that may seem like an excuse for Linklater to inject political commentary, the scene plays it as a universal bonding moment between a father and his kids; It wouldn't have mattered had the signs read Nixon or Reagan. In My Struggle, Knausgaard, a father with his own kids, is faced with taking his baby to a daycare where he feels hopelessly emasculated among the children and mothers. Like the lawn-sign scene in Boyhood, it's a look at contemporary life that feels uncannily timeless.
Linklater and Knausgaard both realize that life is a series of moments woven seamlessly together. In the screening of Boyhood I saw this week, a Q&A followed where Linklater was asked about his decision to use pop music throughout the film. (Soulja Boy and Arcade Fire make notable appearances). He said that an original score had been planned, but it made the movie feel too "directed"—like there was some greater force assembling the story. Of course he's right. The instances that make up our lives aren't islands, separated by the years between between shoots. A three-hour movie and 3,600 page book may seem long, but life itself is much longer.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. When he isn't trying to recapture his lost youth, he tweets here.