Film review of Richard Linklater’s drama starring Ellar Coltrane, Rosanna Arquette and Ethan Hawke about an American boy growing up, filmed over 12 years.
Director: Richard Linklater. IFC/DeTour Productions.
Cast & credits
Producers: Richard Linklater, Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss, Cathleen Sutherland.
Writer: Richard Linklater.
Camera: Lee Daniel, Shane F. Kelly.
Sets: Rodney Becker, Gay Studebaker.
Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal, Brad Hawkins.
Richard Linklater’s ambitious, sprawling modern-day American soap opera follows the story of the typical American boy Mason (Coltrane) over ten years, starting from when he is six until he starts College at 18. He faces a number of trials and tribulations from his sister (Linklater), his peers but none more so from his divorced parents Hawke and Arquette and their numerous other partners over the years.
This at first seemed to me like nothing more than a gimmicky, ‘social-film’ experiment, similar to the ‘…Up’ series by Paul Almond and Michael Apted, nothing more than an American version crammed into just under three hours of screen time. I’ve never felt happier to be totally wrong in my presumption, for what Linklater has given us is nothing short of a blissful film poem about the pain and joy of growing up.
You have to admire Linklater’s front above all else. Imagine popping into a production office with this story, to be filmed gradually over the course of more than a decade, about the maturity of an unprepossessing boy, using the same actors and key crew members during that period and ask for the funds, communications and support to do that. It’s no wonder that the stripped back production cost no more than around $4million.
The screenwriting process must also have raised eyebrows too: there was no completed script, with Linklater sketching out the whole story and preparing the next segment after reviewing the footage most recently completed. Hawke and Arquette shaded in their performances by using their own parents as inspiration.
There is nothing flashily cinematic about this film, which is a good thing as it is already strong as a chronicle of human life. The filming style alternates between a standard, static camera set-up and a cinema veritee/documentary fluidity. Interestingly, Linklater does this at moments you wouldn’t expect. When Arquette’s second husband throws a glass at Mason and later hits her, the camera is kept still instead of moving around freely. He keeps the camera looser during the more relaxed aspects of film, like when Mason is with his friends and father, when we are in the more halcyon days of youth. The opening shot sets the scene perfectly. Mason stares openly upwards to a bright but cloudy sky, looking at a future dotted with possibility.
This helps frame the performance Coltrane gives, nothing overly dramatic or strained. He doesn’t try to be the boy becoming a man, he is that boy. It’s the most unaffected and impressive of turns.
Arquette deserves all of the critical praise being heaped on her for this performance. She has shown before that she can be a delicately understated and sweet actresses, honest and inoffensive. She is a naturally convincing mother who has her fair share of flaws. Her relationships with men are indicative of a circularity of dependent and abusive pairings. Despite her success as a teacher, she none the less shows no insight into her own behaviour and how this has led her children to being abused and neglected. “You guys are adults, you need to take some responsibility!” sounds ironic and hilarious.
Hawke too comes home with the goods as the errant father who finally grows up after years of coasting. He gets to have the most fun in the film, bringing a palpable frenetic energy. When he’s on-screen, you get a definite sense of a ‘contact weekend’ of fast food, car rides to nowhere and crazy golfing.
Also noteworthy is Linklater’s own daughter as Mason’s sister, precocious and funny, definitely a movie find.