We first meet young Mason Jr. (Eller Coltrane) lying on the grass, staring up at the clouds shifting in the sky, a six-year-old, given to staring out the window in his classroom with a strange early sense of self-possession. It is a significant snapshot — beyond the fact that is the very image used for the film’s promotional materials — because this fleeting moment of seeing him, young, unadorned, curious but as yet mostly unlived, is subject to massive — oft harrowing — change over the course of the next 12 years. And this remarkable film from Richard Linklater purports to actually show Mason’s life unfolding over those years in snippets of activity as the actors all grow old with their characters.
Linklater has always been fascinated by the passage of time, and those moments we hold onto later on as significant memories. Think back to his brilliant Before series: The first film ends with the camera lovingly retracing the various locations through Vienna the loquacious young couple (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) took on their endless stroll the night before. The settings are the same, yet, without the couple or any one else in the frame, we are given to understand what has passed has become the past, and the significance of those specific spots in the city have been wiped clean with the new day’s dawn.
Here, following the course of Mason’s life — from dreamy child to video game-loving 10-year-old, to beer-swilling pre-teen, to thoughtful, articulate young artist — Linklater’s methodology involves us deeply in the film’s process (the first couple of time jumps, which come without warning or placard, I audibly groaned, sorry to have left the previous time period on time’s relentless march forward), but it does so in a way that never feels short of organic.
Masons’ mother Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, and father, Mason Sr. (Hawke, again, who will have Linklater to thank for documenting his life so thoroughly over the course of his long career) also go through significant change and re-appraisal. Olivia re-marries two more times, in both cases to hard-drinking, dictatorial men who make for lousy husbands and even worse father figures, while Mason Sr. stops cavorting around Alaska and trying to be a musician and instead becomes a steady husband and father with a new wife and a new baby boy with which to contend.
But, by definition, it’s not a film that relies heavily on plot to carry you through its narrative. The time-jumps are too jarring and inconclusive for that sort of cohesion: In one scene, Mason Jr. is eight or nine, starting yet another new school and enjoying a flirtatious encounter with a cute female classmate; the next, he’s several years older, in an entirely different city, experiencing something else entirely.
It’s the kind of seemingly structureless chronicle that Linklater so excels in producing: His films don’t build into swelling wave-like crescendos of narrative thrust, they meander around like a series of small, noteworthy tide pools. His best films — think the Before series, Slacker, even Dazed & Confused — don’t so much pull you through a story as set you down in an unadorned series of moments in the lives of the characters, letting you swim through their lives as they slip and undulate around you.
Meanwhile, Mason’s parents and sister also evolve: His father goes from being a slightly shiftless, irresponsible (though loving) rogue to a mustachioed middle-manager, his romantic dreams dampened by the yoke of his responsibilities to his current and old family. His mother moves from being an undereducated single parent who makes questionable choices in men to a PhD. professor of psychology — who still makes curiously horrible choices in men, especially in those of whom she chooses to marry.
Emotionally, she becomes the film’s fulcrum. Mason Jr. is forced to swallow various disappointments — everything from his parents’ divorce to a bad break-up with his high school sweetheart — but does so with a smooth calmness, somehow already adept at navigating these tricky waters. Olivia, by contrast, makes “poor life decisions” left and right, never sticking to one plan before moving on to something different. It is her plaintive sobbing as her son, now a preternaturally calm and sweet young adult, leaves home for college, that sticks the film’s most painful pushpin: His life is just beginning, the people he will meet, the adventures he will share, while hers already feels near over “My life is just going to go like that,” she says, in anguish, “a series of milestones. I just thought there would be more.”
And just like that, he’s on the road, heading to college on an art scholarship, everything essential he’s accumulated over the years we’ve known him reduced to a couple of boxes and a suitcase. His mom wants him to take a framed copy of his first photo with him, something to remind him of his beginnings as an artist, but Mason takes it out of the box where she placed it and puts it back into her apartment, no longer interested in documenting his past so much as sailing off into his own remarkably unbridled future.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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