Dir: Richard Linklater
Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture. Director. Supporting Actor. Supporting Actress. Original Screenplay. Editing.
Imagine being approached by Richard Linklater to finance his proposed project:
“So, when will this film be finished and we can see a return on our investment?”
“Um… over 12 years time…”
That’s a massive risk to take, yet it looks like it paid off!
Following a young boy Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) over the years, seeing little parts of each year as he grows up and experiences various changes to his life, especially with his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke).
From the start it feels very much of the time, even the opening titles are a little dated-looking, and the film regularly features references such as Pokémon and Britney spears, as well as a really good soundtrack that too remains contemporary. Luckily the references and songs are all still widely well-known, especially ones such as Harry Potter. Linklater apparently wrote each next section of the film shortly before filming it, and so everything feels suitably current for each and every part.
Mason’s family are the source of most of the developments in the story, and from the very beginning his parents are divorced so there are separate strands of parental changes. Dad, Mason Sr. is at first a bit too laid back. It’s not just the kids that have growing up to do, Dad does too, with a fun but impractical GTO as his car for many years. Mom flirts with college professor, then a year later they’re married, with Mason and Sam gaining two new step-siblings. Massive changes like this happen, and because of the jumps in time they seem very sudden, there isn’t a slow fade in-between sections nor ‘One Year Later’ on-screen, just standard cuts, but each jump in time is clear by the changes around and Mason’s hair.
Things take a more troubled turn for a few years. While their Dad starts making good effort and quits smoking, their mom’s life gets considerably harder with her second husband becoming abusive. The difficulties of home life are well contrasted with the improving relationship with Mason Sr. who tries to improve communication with his kids, really working on having quality conversations with them, playing football, and taking them to a baseball game. We even get a brief insight into his life, an aspiring musician whose autobiographical songs focus on his children. There’s a nice shared love of music developed between Mason and his dad.
The whole last hour is from the age of 15 onwards, where the majority of his ‘coming of age’ really occurs. Mason is taking more of an interest in girls, occasionally smoking, and is developing an interest in photography. Mason Sr. is also maturing, he finally changes the car for something more practical for a father now with the responsibilities of a new wife and baby. Mom has a new home and man too, Jim, but within a few years he stops being so likeable, is shown with a perpetual beer in hand and is extremely hard on Mason. Next year he’s gone while Mom laments “I really enjoy making poor life decisions”. Mason is really growing up, with a considerable amount of bum-fluff on his chin and a job doing dishes in an eatery. He’s also exercising a measure of independence, driving to visit Sam at college where he enjoys the freedom wandering the city at night.
At 18 Mason is shown graduating high school, and the family are all brought together on good terms. Mason Sr. by this point is a responsible man (as shown by his new moustache), he even thanks Mom for raising the kids so well and imparts more fatherly advice to Mason. Mom is also changing up her life again but this time alone, moving into her own apartment. She is given a beautiful moment of positivity when a restaurant manager turns out to be someone she met years ago to whom she imparted life-changing advice. Sam is doing well, settled in the city, and Mason is off to college with a scholarship. The film is left nicely open-ended and upbeat, while it resists the habit of neatly tying everything up and so not everything gets resolved, but there’s a general feeling of optimism.
The casting is so vitally important, with only four key cast members. I admire how the film isn’t filled with appearances by big actors as cameos, it would be tempting to do so but it avoids that completely. A lot of well-deserved praise is being given to the young lead Ellar Coltrane, but Mason’s sister Sam played by directors daughter Lorelei Linklater is a revelation. She’s a really great actress and together they make very convincing siblings, so it’s the pairing of these two who work so well together that makes their individual performances so good. It’s a big risk making a film over so many years with a constant cast, they’re amazingly lucky that nobody pulled out or died, the system of writing as they went along would allow for the film to adapt, but still it wouldn’t have unfolded the way it does if there had been a change to the key family members. I think one key to the cast being on board (apart from Lorelei Linklater’s obvious reasons) is the way that Richard Linklater included them in the film-making process very integrally, incorporating elements of Arquette and Hawke’s lives into their characters and making it as much a personal project for them as it was for him. Linklater even told Hawke that he would have to take on the responsibility of finishing the film if he died.
Most of the credit for this film is very deservedly going to Richard Linklater, whose vision, methods, and determination (where others who attempted similar have often given up), really makes him deserving of the praise. Just look at all the films he’s made in the interim, ‘School of Rock’, ‘Before Sunset’ & ‘Before Midnight’, ‘Bernie’, and ‘A Scanner Darkly’, yet while doing this varied body of excellent work, he managed to produce this film that while constantly changing is still cohesive. This is turning out to be his most praised film by far, even better than the ‘Before Trilogy’, and though it may spur others on to copy it, luckily those likely inferior imitations won’t emerge for a while.
Though the story itself isn’t really anything unique or particularly revolutionary, the way of filming it is, and this makes the film far more than just a coming of age story, it’s how everything has led up to and formed this person, shown with an unparalleled authenticity. Where the film ends is where Mason’s ‘boyhood’ ends, he’s now a young man, away from home and finding his own place in the world. The film too has certainly set out on its own and found critical and commercial success, it now looks almost certainly set to become the latest in the line of ‘Best Picture’ winners at the Academy Awards.