Life has not allowed me many opportunities to hit the theatres this year to see the latest and greatest the film industry has to offer. When I do make it to the theatre, it has been a special occasion. When I heard the concept and idea behind Richard Linklater's latest endeavor, I knew this had to be one of those special occasions. Richard Linklater has had a pretty remarkable career that has, for the most part, gone unnoticed by the general public. The average moviegoer would know him for films like School of Rock and Dazed and Confused. However, it is films like the Before series and character studies like Tape that has made him one of the most intriguing directors working. He is never afraid to do something different, like the animation in A Scanner Darkly or the character studies snapshots every nine years that has become the Before series. However, this groundbreaking film is truly an innovation in filmaking and has resulted in what may be Linklater's masterpiece.
The film centers around a broken family. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their struggling mom (Patricia Arquette) and see their dad (Ethan Hawke) occasionally. The plot of the film is really watching these two grow up, especially Mason, who starts the film as a 5 year old and ends with him going off to college. What makes this film different than any other coming of age story is it was shot piece by piece over the last 13 years. The cast would get together with Linklater for a few weeks every year to film the next piece. This allows for this not only to be a film about growing up, but we get to see the actors grow up at the same time.
This premise could have just been a gimmick that became the only thing this film had going for it. This is not the case as Linklater also was able to produce a script that told a beautifully subtle story. At one point in the film, a character states that we don't seize the moment, but the moment seizes us. This is truly the theme Linklater was going for with his script as the film truly is a series of moments in the lives of these characters. Some moments are life-altering events. Some moments are simply everyday normal events. Much like he has done with the Before series, Linklater is able to fully capture a character's essence in these short moments each year along the way and truly show them grow up year by year.
The process Linklater uses to make this film really becomes its own character as you watch. Not only is each piece showing young Mason grow from a boy to a man, but it is also acting as a tiny time capsule for that year. At the start of the film, the big bubble imacs are used. By the end, characters are talking to each other over Skype on their phones. We hear a 7 year-old Samantha singing "Oops, I Did It Again," another character sing High School Musical, the kids wait in line for the latest Harry Potter book, and Roger Clemens pitching for the Houston Astros. My favorite is a conversation in 2008 about whether they will ever make another Star Wars movie and how there is no way they could ever come up with a good story that comes after Return of the Jedi. (For those that don't catch the irony in that, that's actually happening now.)
All these aspects make this film quite an achievement, however the performances that bring the characters to life are truly what makes this film a special experience. Patricia Arquette gives what will probably go down as her best performance to date, and Ethan Hawke is solid as usual as he seems to play Before's Jesse in an alternate universe. The star of this film, though, is Ellar Coltrane. Linklater lucked out when he cast him as a young boy, not knowing he would turn into the strong actor with the Hollywood features he has become. Watching Mason grow up throughout the movie is also watching Coltrane grow up, not only physically but also in his craft. So many child actors simply can't cut it as adults. I think we will be hearing from Ellar Coltrane for a long time.
My only critique of this film would be the ending. It seemed to drag on a little at the end, as it felt like it was ending about three or four different times before the film ended on an odd note. Also, Mason seemed at the end to have grown into some modern version of Jesse from the Before series. It isn't a bad character to have the essence of, but it was slightly distracting. However, when picturing the film as a whole, these issues are minor at best and more personal preference than anything.
This film is truly a movie-going experience that allows you to relive parts of your childhood as you watch these young people live theirs out on screen. It is a realistic, grounded film that would be a remarkable film on its own merits. However, you add in the way it was made, and it truly becomes something special. Watching the same actors get to grow and mature with their characters throughout the years makes this one of the shortest 3 hour movies I have ever seen. If you see a movie in the coming weeks, go find Boyhood and enjoy.