Fan or not, Linklater’s use of naturalist dialogue, in particular in the Before trilogy, as a river that both carries and reflects uneventful life is unsurpassed. For some (present company included), the waterfalls of speech were occasionally irritating. Here though, Linklater has found the perfect channel: a unique 39 days of filming spread over 12 years as the same cast of characters moves through a life focused on the boyhood of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his mother and father (Arquette and Hawke) and his sister Tammy, alongside that sundry cast of characters that we acquire as we negotiate patchwork families – stepdads, half-siblings, grand-parents, first loves, friends, neighbours and allies.
Linklater’s genius resides in many places. His unobtrusive camera is a given. What he develops here, given the film’s nearly three hour running time, is a finer sense of life’s continuities – and discontinuities. Take the repeated but inconsistent use of ballgames. In an early scene, Mason and his sister go bowling with their dad. He hasn’t been around much (does anybody do rueful cheerfulness better than Hawke?). Everybody strikes except Mason, whose balls slide gently to the side. Some years later, out golfing with the new stepdad, Mason birdies his ball whilst the stepdad misses a beginner’s shot. Later still, Mason, Tammy and Mason Sr. are at a baseball game, watching the Houston Astros in a legendary win. And finally, in his later teens, Mason hones talents clearly dear to Linklater’s heart: those of a photographer looking for the unusual angle at a football game. This is a trope, for sure, but also more. Its varied use (Mason plays, watches, records) is also, and quite simply, life.
Or diegetic musical interludes: garage bands at pubescent parties or Mason Sr. playing crummy guitar but slowly getting better, writing songs with a new wife, putting a Black Beatles Tape together for his son. Or politics: “Anybody but Bush” says Mason Sr. early in the film, giving his kids the lowdown on US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But about half way through, Mason’s mother hooks up with a former soldier with two tours of duty under his belt. Or media technology: from post 9/11 video games to Iphones and Mason’s high tech camera, Linklater uses it to chart another aspect of constant variability. Social media, the rise of Facebook, Lady Gaga on Youtube: all unobtrusively combined with a perceptively accepting gaze.
With a little self-referential irony (Mason’s mother teaches Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation), Linklater’s film has it all. If he got the Silver Bear in 1995 for best director (Before Sunrise), surely he deserves more now.