Monday, September 15, 2014
What you get is a journey through a family album. So what? Well, a family album can tell you a lot. I had a great job a few years back digitising collections of glass negatives from the early twentieth century. Among them was a series of family photos taken in the back yeard of a Melbourne house and spanned decades. They were not rich people but could dress for church which is what they did for their annual group photo. When World War One comes up the oldest brother is suddenly in a slouch hat and puttees. And then he is absent forever. Sometime after the flu year of 1919 the mother vanishes never to return. The garden, a mix of food and flowers goes to seed and eventually disappears. At some point in the early twenties the father, too, vanishes and in his place is a slightly younger man who can hold a grin for the camera and doesn't mind if it catches the glint of his pocket watch. The photo is black and white but that watch is gold plated. Uncle made good? Someone. No one else is happy. I took extra care on that set. They were glass negatives and delicate to begin with but the extra care was from being so moved by what I was witnessing.
Richard Linklater at his best is painstaking. Whether it's deceptively meandering like Slacker or the Before series or disciplined and tight like Me and Orson Welles, he's one to sweat the small stuff so the big stuff shines. And so it does here as we turn page after page of family history, smiling knowingly, laughing at sibling competition, wincing uncomfortably at the leavings of dysfunction and pain.
We come to know how Lynne (Patricia Arquette) makes such hasty and poor judgements in her choice of partner but we don't judge because we see how hard she works to keep everything afloat. One of those poor judgements is, of course, Mason Snr (Ethan Hawke) whose dad-of-convenience learns to accept his responsibilities not through a sudden trauma but over time. The other two big mistakes we meet are believably magnetic. We see, too, the saddening ease by which a parent or parental figure can fall in a child's eye from natural authority and trust to disappointing weakness. And we understand the weakness, the shift to self-medication in the face of unbearable self-dissapointment.
Ellar Coltrane, who goes from seven to eighteen in the running time, develops as we would expect him to: quietly confident and increasingly capable of concealing profound anger at the unfairness around him. We come to know his flaws and the plaguing doubts that nurture them. When he is brought up for these by two authority figures their chiding at first feels annoying but soon proves accurate. Mason Jnr is slow to take direction, self-sabotaging the way that every teenager can be. When he is compelled by his teacher to go and photograph a local football match even his friends tell him to turn around and shoot the game. He's been perversely taking pictures of the crowd. He's a kid and resents authority more because it inconveniences him than from any nascent revolutionary fervour.
It is Lorelei Linklater (yes, director's daughter) who diverts us throughout as the mischevious Samantha, Mason Jnr's sister. She sneaks torment of her younger brother, throwing pillows at him while yelling a version of Opps I Did It Again. She serves him at the dinner table in a made up language and protests after he does that she only speaks perfect English. There might not be a single scene that includes her that doesn't involve some infruiating and genuinely funny smart-arsery. As with Ellar Coltrane, her personality arc feels natural. You will not be surprised at her response when the moment comes to make good for all those years and give her brother a proper sororal hug.
While what I said at the start of this review is true. You don't have to care about the epic-scale feat of this movie's production. However, if you do care, you will experience the same pleasant alienation at moments as you might have at the sight of the rescaled actors in Lord of the Rings. You really are seeing people grow up in front of you AND it looks and feels like one film. A girl from one scene is visibly older in a later one. Her only line is, "I'm thirteen," answering a question put to her by Samantha whom we remember first seeing as an eight year old. That alone, feeling as big as life and small as fiction at once, is an epic moment.