Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater
Ellar Coltrane as Mason
Lorelei Linklater as Samantha
Patricia Arquette as Mom
Ethan Hawke as Samantha
Marco Perella as Professor Bill Welbrook (stepdad)
Brad Hawkins as Jim, Mom’s third partner
Jennie Tooley as Annie, Dad’s new wife
It’s got one of the best films of the decade plastered on the adverts. It got an unprecedented 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Three Golden Globes: Best picture, Best director, Best supporting actress (Patricia Arquette). It’s up for just about every category for the 2015 Oscars. It was running as favourite for Best picture and Best director, simply because there’s nothing comparable in the concept and actually seeing the cast change and grow over twelve years in under three hours. The BBC documentary series Seven Up / Fourteen Up / Twenty One Up etc where they visit the same people every seven years is not the same thing because we move in great jumps. Here each year quietly blends into the next. 2015 will be a hard-fought contest, with the other great innovator, Birdman, winning the Zanuck Award for best picture, normally an Oscar speech rehearsal occasion. I suspect it’s a two horse race (and my money’s definitely on Birdman).
Mason near the start with Dad (Ethan Hawke)
It took twelve years to make. It takes Mason from five to eighteen, from first school to starting university. Or first grade to twelfth grade for Americans. His sister, Samantha, goes from eight to twenty. Those twelve years of filming are compressed to two hours and forty-three minutes, frighteningly short for a boy growing up (though it did seem rather too long when watching it). It is maybe a one-off, though if it spawns imitators we’re going to have to wait a long long time to see them. Imagine the contract negotiation … we’ll need you for a few weeks every year for the next twelve years. Imagine the sleepless nights the director must have had after dreaming about road accidents and sudden illnesses to the cast, let alone rehab, madness or whatever. He must have had a contingency plan. The contracts must have been cast-iron too. Ethan Hawke has said how odd and how rewarding it was to meet up once a year with the growing kids. Ellar Coltrane says that in watching the finished film it was weird because he had no memory of the early bits. Lorelei Linklater is the director’s daughter which must have helped a lot in plotting each year.
Linklater said he had originally envisaged Mason growing up and trying to be in a band, like his father. Life intervened, and he went with Ellar Coltrane’s real life interests, photography and visual arts instead. That was the sensible choice, but perhaps forced on him. There’s a family sing-song at the country ranch of his dad’s new in-laws, and Mason gets one line, and finds it hard to hold the tune. You couldn’t predict whether a six year old would have musical ability. But a band would have added more interpersonal dynamics and had more potential as a plot branch. Linklater also had problems with his daughter, who at one point got fed up and asked to be killed off.
Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater as Samantha are up for awards, and both are so good … but I guess if you had an annual summer school in acting from Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, it would be influential … Daniel Radcliffe has described how much he learned from doing a Harry Potter movie every year.
You get swept up because you’ve never seen a cast age like this. It’s real. But as the detractors have said, not much of dramatic impact happens either. I don’t really see how you could have predicted enough about the cast in future to draw a tight narrative. They needed plenty of room to adapt, but the result is more documentary than drama. As Mason ages, there are far too many boring two minute static two-shot conversations about life with people.
Mom and kids
It’s hard to see when they change time periods too, it just cuts to the next scene and it takes a few seconds where you think, ‘Has that been another year? Or is he still the same? That is important for the flow, though mildly irritating sometimes.
I wondered if they had failed on a few contracts. Mom’s third partner, Jim, the ex-soldier (Brad Hawkins), is there and then he isn’t. No explanation. Both the first stepdad (Marco Perella) and Jim, the ex-soldier next partner for Mom, add some much needed drama to the story, basically by being a nasty alcoholic bastard (Professor Bill) and an authoritarian blue collar guy (Jim).
When Dad gets married and has a baby, Mason gets to visit his new stepmom’s parents, who treat him like a grandson, and give him two Texas gifts … a rifle and a Holy Bible. We also see a church service. As events in this film goes, that’s a memorable one, perhaps because giving 15 year olds rifles and bibles is so alien to the British viewer.
The British viewer will find several alien things. All nationalities change tone and sometimes words when speaking to children, but to the British ear, American parent-child talk is unusually authoritarian on chores and duties and the tone so often patronising. I don’t think the British wade in with portentous advice to kids so often either- as does the photography teacher in the long static dark room scene with Mason. This comment on difference is not just this film … this is observation over thirty years of visiting the USA. OK, a lot of observation was Disneyland or tourist areas or National Parks, which really emphasizes it, because there’s a special public “quality time” tone too. I’m not claiming we do any better with our kids at all, and maybe we just don’t take as much trouble, just that there are strong surface observable national differences.
I thought the film tailed off as Mason got towards college. His acting was first-rate, but he had to sit and talk far too much. Linklater says late on he had them improvise scenes and then scripted. That method works for Mike Leigh, working with the cream of highly-experienced actors. I think improvising then writing is getting other people to do your job for you. It works if you know the people and they are inventive … we wrote six pantomimes in that way. Improvising scenes, looking for jokes, then post-scripting. However, Linklater, frankly, is working with kids. The result was pretty dull to often.
The later Mason
It leaves quite a negative feeling. The male role models are all dysfunctional. Ethan Hawke as dad is a wastrel, though at least he keeps up with his kids. He’s the kind of absent father who doesn’t pay maintenance but gives the kids big presents on his rare visits. Once he’s got his new family, a haircut and right-wing gun and bible toting farmer in-laws, you guess he’ll be a born-again within a couple of years. The professor stepdad is nasty uptight authoritarian and spiteful. And a psychology professor. Good one (and an outstanding performance too). Mason and Samantha lose their new step-siblings. Jim, the Correctional Officer is also uptight, resentful, bossy. So how will Mason fare in life? Mum is the core figure, but she makes three really poor decisions about males. She works her butt off to keep the family together, then when Mason is eighteen, he’s turned out and she moves to a tiny apartment and feels her life is over. Mason goes to college and is last seen, stoned, and gazing at the desert. And it just ends. Just like that.
The final scene
Overall? The concept and execution were brilliant. The acting was great. It’s all nicely sharp and clearly filmed. But the script seemed unsure of where it was going (probably because no one knew) and the narrative meanders. I can see why it’s up for so many awards for such a strong concept, and I highly recommend seeing it … but Birdman, Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are all vastly more entertaining. Those five star reviews it’s garnered are two stars too many for me.
BAFTA for Best Director, Best Film, Best Supporting actress … ah, well.
OSCARS: Best supporting actress only. I was right, Birdman got best film.