There are a number of questions concerning how we are supposed to enjoy this film. It seems to be a straightforward story about a small boy, his parents and a slightly older sister. But from the title alone, we sense that it will take place over a number of years, culminating in that moment when “boyhood” is completed. And that is exactly what happens. Mason Jr., whom we have seen from the age of six, is now eighteen and is starting college. He has left his mother, who has raised him as a single parent since the beginning of the film, and is starting the exciting adventure of being responsible for himself.
When the film ended, I was gratified in that I felt I knew Mason Jr., and that the story had reached a natural conclusion. Certainly the film had been true to its title; nothing remained of “boyhood” as a stage of life, and the person who had been the boy had passed on to another stage, while remaining the same person. Whatever would happen to Mason Jr. after the film was over would be the story of him as a young man. If the actor playing him, Ellar Coltrane, was able to continue the role in a sequel, the film would have a different title.
But in actually seeing the film as Mason Jr.’s story, it’s impossible to appreciate it on that level alone. That’s because the way the film was made is so unusual that it must inevitably serve as a story in itself, one that is parallel to the story about the fictional characters the actors portray. They can do their best – and for Patricia Arquette, it’s a career summit – but the way they age in those twelve years is a separate, and often intrusive, experience. It’s almost as if we’re watching two films simultaneously on a split screen.
So, what about that story, the one about the fictional Mason, Jr? What kind of story is it?
Actually, it’s pretty straightforward, even if it kind of rabbit-hops in a broken line.
We meet Mason Jr., age six, and his sister Samantha, eight, and their mother, Olivia, at a time when their father, Mason Sr., returns to Texas from working in Alaska. Mason Sr. and Olivia were divorced during that time, but he wants to do some week-end parenting while continuing the search for his “inner self”. If nothing else, the kids have fun when they’re with him; dour Olivia doesn’t have time for that. She takes the family to live in Houston, near the children’s grandmother, where she finds better paying work while attending college. Meanwhile Mason, Sr. continues his fun visits, but Mason, Jr’s hopes that the family will re-unite are crushed; Olivia has set her sights on a future without her children’s father, permanently.
She starts a relationship with her psychology professor, Welbrock, also divorced, and they marry. He has a young son and a daughter too, and they all live in a large, comfortable home for a while, while Mason Jr. adjusts to his disappointment. But things go downhill fast. The professor is a bully and a drunk, and Olivia runs with the children to live with a friend. Her second divorce soon follows.
By now, Mason Jr. is in high school, getting acquainted with new friends and, of course, girls. He goes to parties, does the usual stuff, but stays out of trouble. Olivia, a teacher now, is an attentive parent, wary but not smothering. She sets limits, which both her children resent, but balance is maintained. Soon she takes up with another man, Jim, an Iraq War veteran, and a new household is formed. But financial and other strains kill that relationship too.
Mason Sr., however, finally finds his groove. It’s not music, which he always loved but couldn’t make work for him, but insurance, which is dull but steady. He gets married to a girl with religious parents, has a child with her, and takes Mason Jr. and Samantha to meet her family. But another event has a deeper impact on their relationship. Mason Jr. learns that his father has sold his car, the one that was promised to Mason Jr. once he turned sixteen. He protests, and nothing Mason Sr. says to soothe him relieves his resentment. It is clear that he will never feel the same way about his father again.
While still in high school, he continues his growing interest in photography, and gets a girlfriend. Since both of these pursuits require money, he gets a part-time job in a restaurant. His boss is impressed, and hints at a promotion during a minor chew-out. His teacher is even more impressed, and is compelled to give him a rough verbal shakedown about his work ethic. But Mason Jr. is not receptive to this; he thinks he works pretty hard.
He visits Samantha, who is away in college, and takes his girl along. Samantha’s roommate walks in unexpectedly and discovers Mason Jr. and his girlfriend having sex, but they all laugh as if it’s just a goof. The relationship gets serious, at least for Mason Jr., until he finds out the girl has cheated on him with a lacrosse player. He tells his dad about the breakup, and the pain he feels, but Mason Sr. puts it in perspective for him. Women will just do things like that, and the pain will be less each time.
Mason Jr. wins second prize in photography and gets a college scholarship. Olivia sees that, with his departure, she faces the rest of her life alone. She has completed her life’s only real accomplishment, and sees only emptiness ahead of her. Overcoming her bitterness, she has a lavish party in her home for her son. Mason Sr. and his family come, along with many other people who have passed through the boy’s life in those twelve years. Afterwards, he drives to college, meets his roommate and, it is implied, his next girlfriend.
This a bare bones synopsis. I’ve omitted a number of things but only one that, I think, is significant, which I’ll talk about next time. Despite my reservations, I must recommend the film because of its originality. But, even for those who are more enthusiastic than I am, you’ve got to admit that the last hour is pretty tedious. That will be addressed in part three of this review.
R.I.P., Marilyn Burns
I think that Marilyn Burns would appreciate, or at least understand, why that picture represents her place in film history. In my opinion, her performance in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was vitally important to the film’s success, especially at the insanely terrifying climax, when she barely escapes with her life from the crazed family that had abducted her and murdered her friends. I knew as soon as I saw her that she was an artist in her own right; a “scream artist”. I had never heard screaming like that in any horror film, and few have matched it since. Her pursuer, Leatherface, is a ridiculous figure who’d seem a curious joke if we saw him at a masquerade party. We’d point and laugh. Instead, I laughed out of terror and disbelief at what I was seeing. Her panic and breathless shrieking – for what seemed beyond human endurance – helped make for one of the most unforgettable endings for any horror film. Marilyn died last week, at age 64, and few knew her name. Her very special performance will endure.