I’ve only really been aware of Linklater’s “Before…” series so, although keen to see this new film, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and can’t really put it in any context to his other work but it may well be that it is sufficiently “other” to stand alone anyway, because the manner of its making is so unusual that it would be unlikely to be particularly typical.
The premise is simple enough – follow a family over a period of around a decade, with particular emphasis on son Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from around age 7 to the end of boyhood, when he goes away to college. The ‘trick’ is that rather than using a series of different actors to show the children growing up (such as We Need to Talk about Kevin), Linklater returned to the same cast each year to film each segment. This is a monumental logistical achievement and it could have come across as gimmicky, and been an obstacle to enjoying the movie but manages to run quite smoothly. Consequently, the passage of the years has a very naturalistic effect, with new segments clearly evident from easily noticeable changes in characters’ physical changes (hairstyles most obviously, but also inevitable change in body-shape and facial features) without the need for explanatory titles or overt spoken cues.
The cast, Patricia Arquette as mother, Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei as Mason’s sister Samantha, and Ethan Hawke as the, initially, absent father all work well. In fact, it’s a real shame that Lorelei Linklater fell out of love with acting, her role in later sections of the film being substantially reduced, because she is an immensely strong character early on and her relative absence unbalances the film later, leaving the emphasis on Mason looking a bit sexist, as we weren’t really convinced he was interesting enough to be the focus of the entire story, and yet he was. Mason is a bit of a cypher, often a bit blank – someone to whom things happen rather than someone who does things, and the film would have benefitted from Samantha’s more pro-active personality to balance.
The plot? Well, there really isn’t one to speak of. Mother and father have a child too early and become a family, having a second child before father does a runner, leaving mother to raise the kids on her own. This is where we join the film and we follow the family as mother returns to education to make herself a career, while running through a few further unsuccessful relationships, father flits in and out of his children’s lives as he, too, grows up. All the while, Mason and (though less so later) Samantha try to make their own ways through life.
It’s an imperfect film, and it appears a little overlong, as several potential endings are passed over before a slightly underwhelming one is reached but it’s easy to see how Linklater might have needed to prepare for a cessation of the project as each year could have been the last and, having made all the effort to get the material, it would be really difficult to reject it and say “no, this movie’s going to stop with the footage I got three years ago”. Nonetheless, an interesting and enjoyable film, and certainly one to support, given how ambitious the project.