The film has a neat gimmick, it was filmed across a twelve year span. The young boy at the film’s start is the same college age actor we see at the end. The same goes for his sister and friends. So, as the characters age, they are not suddenly a new actor every few scenes. It is a nifty gimmick on it’s face. The acting is strong in the film. I went in very much looking forward to the film, as it seems to garner praise and love from everyone who sees it.
Well, except, apparently me.
Richard Linklater’s ode to boys becoming young men is…well, kind of dull and aimless. Young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lacks any sense of personality or spark. He feels aimless at the start of the film and feels entirely aimless at the end of the film. His parents grow and change, but in an ambiguous fashion. We see the father (Ethan Hawke) living in a run down apartment with a musician friend, and the next time we see him he is married with a new baby. His mother (Patricia Arquette) survives an abusive relationship, valiantly fighting to protect her children…then needs her boyfriend to remind her it is her son’s birthday.
But Mason…well, we never, ever get a sense of his hopes and dreams. In fact, the film offers no indication that he has them. We only see him take an interest in photography later in the film. And yeah, it hints that he has a real gift for it. But the film gives no connection to this being a true passion for him. Because Mason comes across and completely uninterested in anything. As a viewer, we are given this unformed character. And maybe his lack of drive was intentional…but frankly, it just reads as dull for me.
It does not help that the film makes the passage of time unclear. One of Mason’s step parents just vanishes from the story after a fight. No indication as to when or why he is gone, he just is. Linklater clearly meant for things like music to help define the passage of time as the songs use tend to be from the general years the story is happening.
Truthfully, if you took the gimmick away. If this had been filmed during a three month period a year or so back with different actors playing Mason at the various stages of his life? I cannot see the film garnering half the praise it does. It feels like every scene was created on the fly, like Linklater was relying on the actors to overcome the lack of anything resembling a story. In many cases, it is not even the most interesting points of Mason’s life.
I am a bit amazed how people are connecting with this one when Mason is such an empty character on screen. He has no drive, no passions, no hopes…he just is there. What is there to connect to?
It has brief moments…there were times I laughed. And times I felt something akin to caring. But it was never brought about by Mason, who is the focus of the film. It was always because of characters outside of him. This is not because I thought Ellar Coltrane was a bad actor…I just found Linklater imbued the character with nothing for Coltrane to connect with. So he shrugs his way through the story.
What kills me is I love the behind the scenes aspect. The idea that the film took twelve years to make and Mason is played by the same actor all the way through? Very interesting. But that does not make the actual result, the actual movie itself, interesting.