Summary: A boy ages from six to eighteen, dealing with various life stuff.
Thoughts: (Might contain spoilers.)
I thought I’d have to wait until this film came out on DVD to watch it; it seems to be getting a pretty limited release with a slow roll-out (only some 300 theaters across the nation at the moment), and my city wasn’t listed on the film’s official site as a city that would be getting the film. I thought I was out of luck, but continually checked anyway, and fortunately it just popped up one day on our local showtimes.
I’ll admit that what interested me in this film was purely its gimmick: filming it over a decade so that we get to watch the characters age before our eyes. There’s something about trying to review a whole lot of life in a short amount of time that just seems naturally profound to me, though I’m not sure I could ever really say why. This is also why I enjoy The Up Series. So, I was biased in favor of the film even before watching it just because I thought the ambitious premise of filming something for twelve years with aging actors was awesome. Just watching a character/actor age from six or seven to eighteen I found interesting. It’s weird the stuff you might notice. Like the way he moves his arms when he walks is the same as a young boy to a teen. But the way he talks seems to suddenly change somewhere in his teen years. His voice deepens and, not long afterwards, he begins speaking with that sort of awkward teen upward inflection. Where did that come from? Weird.
Anyway, I’ll start with my critiques. The bad:
There are some really poorly-written contrived scenes that really stand out with their bland premises and horrible acting from young actors. Particularly the scene in which Mason, our main character, hangs out with some other high-schoolers and is peer-pressured into having a beer. I guess it seems like an obligatory scene for a “coming-of-age” drama, but that’s its problem; it feels too forced and unnatural, like it was stuck in there because someone thought that sort of thing was part of the “teenage experience.” There were a few scenes like this throughout the teenage years; ones that seemed “obligatory” and forced. But I don’t know; perhaps viewers with different teenage experiences will get something different out of those scenes. Another scene features a character reappearing to thank Mason’s mother for changing his life with a few simple words of encouragement years ago. Although I liked the contrast it offered in terms of what the mother’s character was going through at the time, it just seemed ridiculously unrealistic. (Finally, not so much a complaint of the scene itself, but of its content: the democrat-father’s version of a safe-sex talk exemplifies part of why this country has such a problem with marriage and single parenthood; they tell their kids to “use protection”, basically directly encouraging and pressuring their children to risk getting pregnant and implying that if they don’t engage in this sort of behavior, they’re weird and unfortunate.)
About half-way through the film, as Mason’s teenage years begin, a glaring problem emerges: Mason has almost no personality. This was probably intentional, as it allows Mason to almost be an “everyman”; it allows us, the audience, to step into his shoes much more easily, filling out his blank slate with aspects of ourselves. But the trade-off is that he can become a bit boring, and, if you can’t relate to what decisions he does make (like to be so easily pressured into having a beer or doing drugs, or to get an earring), he can seem like a moron. At the very least, it may become harder to empathize with him.
What makes a lot of the film very effective is its sort of “observatory” nature, the kind you usually only get with foreign films. This is a bit hard to explain, but I’ll try. While we watch the world through Mason’s eyes, we are not provoked into judging what we see. That doesn’t mean we don’t naturally judge what we see (you’re not going to love watching an abusive alcoholic step-dad continuously torment his family). What I mean is that your judgment of the situation comes about naturally from your experience of watching it and empathizing with the characters. The film doesn’t try to “manipulate” you into emotions with things like music, cinematography, editing, etc. It simply records what happens, and the judgment you bring to it is your own. Not that being “manipulated” into an emotion is necessarily a bad thing; it’s what most films do. Also, it’s more of a “spectrum.” I’m not saying this film never tries to manipulate your emotions at all, only that it does so far less and more subtly than a typical American film, giving the film a sort of natural honesty you wouldn’t find otherwise.
The film had a nice flow to it; it was almost three hours, but it passes amazingly fast when you find yourself engaged in scenes that don’t even seem that significant by themselves. Like a game of charades. Or getting kicked off a school computer while playing The Oregon Trail. Or being told: “That’s the last piece of candy for you today, OK?” (When you’re a kid, things that are insignificant to adults, like being refused candy, can feel really significant. I don’t think it’s about the candy; it’s feeling disrespected by adults. It’s strange what you can remember.)
I also enjoyed the references to pop culture that sort of dated the years, though feeling that many references didn’t seem like that long ago made recognizing them a bit sad. These things really came out that long ago? Maybe being in your late 20’s is just sad because of how quickly time collapses. For example, Mason goes out to buy Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince when it comes out. I remember doing the same when it came out (though I certainly didn’t dress up as anyone; I was in college. OK, I might have worn one of the free plastic Harry Potter glasses they were handing out.) I had to go look up when it came out: 2005. 9 years ago. NINE. Ugh.
There’s a particular scene that stood out to me. Near the end of the film, when Mason’s moving out, he decides he doesn’t want to keep an old photograph he took. (Because of course Mason would become a photographer.) “It’s your first photograph,” his mother says. “All the more reason not to keep it,” Mason replies. He takes it out of his box and puts it back somewhere and when he returns, his mother’s in tears. I don’t even remember exactly what she said, but it was kind of heart-breaking. Something like, “This is it for me. All this stuff happened, we went through our milestones. The only thing left is my funeral.” “I think you’re skipping ahead like 40 years,” Mason replies. She wipes her eyes and continues: “I just… I thought there’d be more.” Ouch. Bit of a downer. And that comes after Mason spent several scenes of his teenage years looking forward, wondering what he wanted to do with his life, and wondering what the point of life is in the first place. Some of his teacher characters made me cringe, realistic as they are, when they kept trying to inspire Mason, asking him what he wanted to “be” or assuring him he’d do well. And then his mother’s experience almost seems to crush his bright-eyed outlook. Yet her dilemma was probably brought about by sharing Mason’s attitude in her teenage years; Mason could easily end up like her, all the more bitter if his first photograph meant as much to him. It’s the idea that people seem to want and expect certain things from life, and judge their lives externally by them: a constant flow of worldly success, a collection of trips and achievements and milestones with happy photographs to remember them by. (And, in the meanwhile, debt and employment and some occasion or trip coming up soon to be stressed about.) But it’s all just vacuous crap we humans invented for ourselves, because we really have no idea what we’re supposed to be doing here. So let’s decide what “progress” is, and then make it! Let’s move or buy new stuff or take a vacation or find a new job or hobby. And then when we still feel unfulfilled, let’s make some more “progress”! But somewhere inside, we’ll only be Mason’s mother, crying that we thought there’d be more.
Not that the film ends on that bitter note; that scene just stood out to me. The film ends on a sort of more ambiguous note that doesn’t necessarily try to cheesily inspire you, but doesn’t try to upset or embitter you either. And it sort of sums up what the whole film’s about, in a sense. But you’ll have to watch the film yourself to see it…
When I left the theater, I couldn’t stop thinking of the film. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I experienced watching it. I feel it’s the sort of film I could watch again and again and find something new each time, get something new out of each experience.
So, despite my critiques about certain aspects of it, overall I thought it was a profound film. I hesitate to call it “great” or “amazing” or some positive adjective, because it didn’t leave me smiling; it’s not the sort of film that tries to manipulate you into feeling temporarily happy. Rather, if you can get into it, it makes you think, perhaps like no other film possibly could.