How Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ Trilogy Became a Cult Classic

Still of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in a cafe in Before Sunrise.

Regarded as a trailblazer in independent cinema, filmmaker Richard Linklater has directed 31 projects in his 30-year-long career. From household classics like “School of Rock,” to heartfelt coming-of-age stories like “Boyhood,” to stoner comedies like “Dazed and Confused,” and philosophical animation in “Waking Life,” Linklater’s filmography is one that has inspired a generation of filmmakers. So much of what draws people to Linklater’s films is his focus on dialogue-driven stories. Oftentimes, Linklater’s films feature continuous scenes that follow his characters as they ebb and flow through their rich and blossoming conversations, and this is what has kept viewers revisiting his movies for years. 

One of the films in Linklater’s filmography that does this so effortlessly is “Before Sunrise.” The film follows two strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet on a train on their way to Vienna. The two characters strike up conversation that spans topics from religion, to childhood trauma, to romantic endeavors, to the meaning of life. The film follows our characters through their one evening in Austria as they simply walk and talk. 

In the words of Julie Delpy herself in a behind-the-scenes interview, “It’s so rare to have two people who are really sharing something… You could live with someone for ten years and not know this person. And I think this film is about [how] in one night they’re going to try to know each other more than if they’ve been together for a long time.” Or, as Ethan Hawke plainly put it, “It’s a movie about men and women trying to get along with each other, and I think that appeals to everybody.” 

This heartfelt romance following two 20-somethings could have easily gotten lost among Linklater’s growing filmography or the several other ’90s romance movies that became culturally significant, but “Before Sunrise” stood the test of time. The film was wildly successful when it was released in 1995, grossing $22.5M at the box office. With over 200 romance films being released in 1995, it is a surprise that “Before Sunrise” and its two additional installations, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” that follow the couple falling in and out of love, have as large of a fan base now as they did back then. But how has the trilogy continued to be popular? Cinephile social media.

As the internet has grown and expanded, many people have found platforms that contain every subculture and niche interest they could possibly have — including cinephiles. These spaces on Reddit, Instagram, X and TikTok tend to contain posts that discuss film news, film theory and intense debates and discussions around films ranging from blockbusters to indies. The posts from these internet subcultures highlight some of the more poignant moments of many of these films. These accounts will share the quotes and stills that truly resonate with viewers and will have you enamored at first glance.

One of my favorite stills with quotes that I have seen posted dozens of times on cinephile social media is this line that Celine delivers in the second installment of the “Before” trilogy, “Before Sunset”: “I always feel like a freak, because I’m never able to move on like… this, you know. People just have an affair, or even entire relationships… they break up and they forget. They move on like they would have changed brand of cereals. I feel I was never able to forget anyone I’ve been with. Because each person has their own specific qualities. You can never replace anyone. What is lost is lost. Each relationship, when it ends, really damages me. I never fully recover.”

Celine’s (Julie Delpy) monologue in “Before Sunset.”

“I think I saw stills of [the “Before” trilogy] on Instagram before I watched them,” shared film buff, Lily Gardener, who attended a screening of the trilogy at Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theater. “It just is so mundane. It’s so real. It seemed like something I wanted to watch.” 

For the last few years, the Coolidge Corner Theater has been hosting screenings as a part of their “Destination: Romance” series, where they play romance movies throughout the month of February. Throughout the month, love stories exploring a range of dynamics grace the screen of the Coolidge Corner Theater’s main screening room. This year, the theater screened a back-to-back marathon of all three movies in the Before trilogy, attracting couples, friends and film lovers alike to re-experience this film on the silver screen. 

The theater, seating nearly 300 people, was entirely packed on February 11 for this day-long screening event. The first film in the trilogy was released in the ’90s, meaning many of the social-media-based fans never had the chance to experience the film in theaters. As the theater filled out with many people who had never seen the film on the big screen before, it became an entirely different viewing experience for them.

“Watching it at home, we were very into the romance and the drama aspect of it. But watching it here, I really appreciated how funny some moments are in the first movie, just because of being with an audience and [hearing] people reacting.” shared Ryan Kelley who came with his partner Lily Gardener, who added, “The scene where they’re in the church in the first movie, they’re talking about how there are all these emotions in one building. It felt different to me, because it felt similar to being in this room with all these people feeling the feelings from this movie all together.”

Coolidge Corner Theater cultivated community among like-minded people at the screening of the “Before” trilogy, which is partly the theme of the film. “It’s about connection, the emotional connection between humans,” Celeste Sanchez shared at the screening. “It’s just so real and raw, and I feel like a lot of people gravitate towards that, over some of his other films… This has something none of his other movies have — that authenticity and heart.”