Richard Linklater & The ‘Wise Kid’ Motif

I am a fan of Richard Linklater’s direction. That said, I’ve not seen all his films. Looking at the 20 or so films he has directed (as listed on IMDB), I have seen 10. There is a recurring motif in his films that I am fond of. One I call the ‘Wise Kid’ motif. In crude terms, a character desiring something more, and becoming aware of circumstance and the pitfalls of aspiring to be cool.

I do not mean cool in the obvious sense. Like John Travolta in Grease or Harry Winkler in Happy Days. This more obvious sense of cool means that the characters are represented by films and perceived by the audience in such a way, where the character’s traits transfers into the public imagination and becomes some one to emulate, to dress like, to talk like and so forth. I don’t think there have been characters from Linklater’s films where this has occurred. Rather, the more subtle cool that Linklater is able to create, is one that allows the viewer to identify and empathise with, an on-screen character’s aspiration to fit in. In many of his films, it does not appear to me that Linklater’s primary aim is to create or represent an obvious kind of ‘cool’. Rather, he tries to curate stories about trying to fit in. The ideal fit people search for, is altogether a more subtle kind of cool. The ‘wise kid’ motif provides a prism through which one could sympathise with the character’s aspirations to be cool, and yet, become aware of its problems.

Is the ‘Wise Kid’ motif, representative of what Linklater once was or wanted to be? Are his films a project of inspiration, to use the medium of film to inspire kids to be more thoughtful at the most dangerous and reckless periods of their lives? These are rather big questions and perhaps help explain my fascination with his films. No doubt, the questions I have posed should be turned back at me. It might be something I search for in his films, of what I expect of him and films generally, which may have resulted in me creating and identifying with the ‘Wise Kid’ motif.

The premises of Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, Boyhood, all involve the themes of ‘growing up’ and ‘asking questions’. The key Linklater style is to focus on someone with questions, who may be surrounded by other characters who do not appear interested in such questions, or, the other characters are focussed on asking other questions. Similar themes are found in The “Before” trilogy. Sometimes the question itself is important in a scene in the film, and, there is an express dialogue between characters about it. Often though, the questions are implicit. Revealed more in terms of the manner in which the ‘Wise Kid’ character responds to another character. For example, like a shrug of the shoulders to represent being unconvinced by the arguments and expectations made by others.

My appreciation for the ‘Wise Kid’ motif has evolved over the years. Years ago, I was more enthralled by the idea of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet as strangers, and yet speak candidly about big ideas. It was the activity I liked to do. Less so the talking to strangers element, which was a bit hit and miss. Rather, talking about the future, travel and love was central to my teenage self. Around the same time (just months after “Before Sunrise” I took a far more active interest in film), I became more aware of how much my appreciation of film depended on the intentions of scriptwriters, directors, cinematographers, actors, score composers, costume and set designers. Since then, I have tried not to think about whether a film was good or bad. Rather, I’ll try to think about why the topic was selected, how it was presented, and my response to it over the years.

Within the ‘Wise Kid’ motif, I find Linklater presentating a character to the audience, who is hoping for the wisdom to cope with their situation. What I like is that Linklater’s ‘Wise Kid’ characters never quite ‘get’ the answer. Almost as if, life just happens. Sometimes the character seizes the moment, only later to find there was nothing to seize. At other times, the character is seized by the moment, only to find themselves shunning it later. Since the films don’t focus on the solution, I find that I can return to the ambiguity of the films as years pass. Intriguingly, and of course unsurprisingly, I have come to observe how much I have evolved. As time has passed, I now find some of the questioning less plausible and find myself more sure about the choice to be made by the ‘wise kid’ character.

What strikes me most about the ‘Wise Kid’ motif, is that being wise or displaying moments of wisdom is not found in material artefacts. It is not like wisdom is a quality that some people ‘have’ and others don’t. Of course, some people may have more or less wisdom that others, or at least, have more or less stories that demonstrate wisdom or folly. To put it another way, wisdom is not an inherent quality of a person. Really wise people are open to folly, and vice versa.

In my experience, wisdom is quite hard work. Often, the aspiration to be wise exhausts people before they make much progress. Life, in all its material and existential force, gets in the way. For example, like wearing certain kinds of clothes to impress parents and friends, or, going to school for a qualification. To be wise, it appears a far more profound step is required. Something, within the mind and within how we converse with one another.

In some sense, the location of wisdom seems to be outside of the material spaces we inhabit. Finding wisdom involves finding a place for our imagination. This is especially hard, if the action ‘of being wise’ has already been preconceived by the people around you. So, whilst one is making the psychic journey to find wisdom, they also have to deal with the pressure of ‘not already knowing what to do’ from the people around them. It seems to me that what I have just described intensifies a tension in people. A tension that often frustrates, particularly when the individual gets little sympathy from others as they try their best to make a choice about something that has no self-evident answers.

So what happens to how the successful life is imagined, when people are frustrated in this way? Do people begin to do lose faith in trying to be more wise? Do people concentrate their efforts on accumulating more material artefacts, sort of physical demonstrations of success, they could use to represent themselves to others? I am not suggesting that they are exclusive from one another. Nor do I suggest something reductive, like wisdom being better than material wealth. For me, the ‘Wise Kid’ motif in Linklater’s films exposes us to this ambiguous problem. Perhaps from watching and reflecting on the motif in ‘reel life’, one might learn to be aware of the same dilemma whilst going about our lives as best as we can in ‘real life’.

“I have a lot of sympathy for people in their 20s, who are sort of wanting to do something different. Or discover what they are most passionate about, or live a life of purpose, or that, you know, they feel like what they are doing with their time is valuable to themselves or the community.” Richard Linklater


Richard Linklater & The 'Wise Kid' Motif

Richard Linklater & The ‘Wise Kid’ Motif

Stephen Samuel