“A boy’s will is the wind’s will/And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.” (Longfellow)
We first see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lying on the ground, looking up at the sky, and it is clear that his thoughts are very long indeed. We will stay with Mason and — in an unprecedented longitudinal form of filmmaking from writer/director Richard Linklater — portrayed by Coltrane for twelve years, until he leaves for college at age 18. This film deservedly appears on most of the year’s top ten lists and has been selected by several critics groups as the best film of the year.
Linklater has followed characters over the years before. We have seen the romantic relationship of Celine and Jesse in three 24-hour episodes (all involving walking through European cities) in the “Before” films, plus an intriguing segment of the animated “Waking Life.” That series is an extraordinary, and I hope, continuing undertaking, with stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke working with Linklater to create the storyline and script.
Hawke is in this film, too, as Mason’s father, Mason senior. Patricia Arquette plays his mother and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays his older sister, Samantha. All are superb. Linklater says that he knew what the last shot would be from the beginning. For the rest, he trusted his stars and the developments of the dozen years ahead of them. As the children got older, they joined Linklater, Hawke, and Arquette in helping to fill in the details.
And it is the details that are the story here, giving it a unhurried yet mesmerizingly enthralling feel and an unexpected power. At first, it seems like time-lapse footage of a flower blooming. Then it feels like watching someone’s home movies. By the end, we are so invested in Mason’s life we feel we are watching our own.
Linklater and his cast met for just a few weeks each year to film a little more. Unlike a conventional narrative, where, as Chekov put it, economy of storytelling means that a gun over the fireplace in act one has to go off by act three, this story is not linear. But non-linear does not mean random. The incidents chosen are not necessarily the high points of Mason’s years, but they are indicators that create a mosaic of the fuller picture. Mason sees his mother, who has gone back to graduate school, talking to one of her professors. But it is unlikely that he understands the meaning of the look they exchange. We are not surprised to find them married in a subsequent scene. And we do not need a slow build-up or full character arc to understand the import of the succeeding conflicts between the stepfather and stepson.
Meanwhile, Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater do something no one has ever done quite this way before on screen. They grow up. And Richard Linklater trusts the audience enough to let that in and of itself be the dramatic arc of the story. There were laughs and hoots in the audience over the antiquated look of the computers at Mason’s school. There are references to the first Obama Presidential campaign and the release of a new Harry Potter book. But these are all organic, as much as his first heart-break, his second stepfather, and new stepmother, and tough words from his teacher. There is no micro-managed re-creation of the past; this is the past, our past as well as Mason’s. It feels real, it feels lived in, and, as he leaves for college, it feels bittersweet but filled with promise.
Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse, tense family confrontations, guns, very strong language, sexual references (some crude), and teen drug and alcohol use.
Family discussion: Do you agree with Mason’s photography teacher about what he should do? Mason had many different role models for masculinity — which do you think he will follow?
If you like this, try: Richard Linklater’s other films, including “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight” and “Waking Life”