What makes this film unusual is the fact that it was filmed for a few weeks at a time, every year for twelve years with the same cast which means that we see the physical maturation of the characters in real time. This, as well as small details like the music, cars, and hair and clothing styles, are the only indicators that time has passed. Otherwise it is as if we are simply living their lives with them. It is about the moments between major life events. Richard Linklater is a master of the near plotless film. Dialogue is favored over action.
The changes undergone by Mason’s mother are as momentous as those of Mason. Refusing to be a victim, she moves the kids in with her mother so that she can get her degree. In the course of twelve years she gets remarried, divorced, and enters relationships with alcoholics, yet in the end gains control of her life. She has a pattern of very bad choices in men, but through it all she is devoted to her children and their well-being. Her reserves of resilience and optimism seem bottomless. It is only when Mason finally leaves for college she cracks for a moment as she sees only old age ahead.
Ethan Hawke is a natural as the self-involved slacker and deadbeat dad, Mason Sr. When he breezes into town to be with the kids and wife he abandoned, he cannot see why he should not be welcomed with open arms. But once he falls in love with and marries the daughter of conservative gun-toting, bible-wielding parents, he embraces the bourgeois lifestyle he had so successfully eschewed in his prior life.
What Richard Linklater has done and continues to do so well is to focus on the myriad small moments which make up the texture of life. The acting does not feel like acting. The dialogue does not feel scripted or false. There is no overwrought drama. Events feel like credible unpredictability. By spending such intimate time with the dailiness of unexceptional lives, he gives them humanity and respect. He allows us to see how they mutually influence each other and grow and change, how events and their reactions shape their lives. The fact that audiences seem to be able to so completely relate to this film is its genius. This could not be farther away from last year’s paeans to celebrity, wealth, and fame (Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, to name a few). Maybe that is why this film has such resonance. We are not a very reflective society so this provides us with a window into our own lives.
Text by Belle McIntyre