It’s a little mystifying why the cumulative impact of the film is so much less than what we thought it would be at the beginning. There is pleasure in observing a young person growing up in America in the millenium’s first decade. Alongside that, we have the fresh experience of seeing the effects of time, physically, intellectually and emotionally, on a diverse group of multi-faceted, colorful characters. It’s interesting, too, to watch this particular grouping of actors. While we recognize Patricia Arquette, most of us haven’t seen much of her over the last decade, except for her featured role in Boardwalk Empire. That in itself is rewarding. Just to remember her past performances, such as in True Romance and Flirting With Disaster, and to see the physical changes. I think the general view is that – even a little older and slightly more plump – she’s still sexy and eminently watchable.
Ethan Hawke, on the other hand, has never left the public eye, and seems to turn up everywhere. His long-standing collaboration with Richard Linklater is well-known to independent film audiences, and has been beneficial for both their careers. But has that association been good for the film? In one sense yes; in another no.
The positive is that it has probably been essential to getting the film made at all. Hawke’s creds in independent film are very respected, and I think that a number of the crew may have adjusted their schedules because he believed in the project. But his character, Mason Sr., does present problems in that Hawke, so familiar and likeable, lets his natural charm take over the performance. Charm has become so associated with Hawke that viewers automatically settle into a comfortable, familiar groove when he’s onscreen. It’s like he sells it by the yard. Making matters worse is that Mason Sr. is not sufficiently interesting a character to pull us back into the story. As a result, I found myself watching him “perform” this selfish loser as just another vanity turn by a popular actor. The difference here is I was also watching him get years older during a single performance.
If Hawke’s performance tilted the film towards what is essentially a weak dramatic character, the sporadic glimpses of Olivia made me want to see more of her. Hers was a story with built-in interest, especially as Patricia Arquette portrays her. Ostensibly the abused rather than the abuser with her men, she nevertheless catches whomever she sets her cap for, and then discards them when it suits her. Each of them comes off badly – especially the wife-beating professor – but you can’t help thinking that we only see them at their worst after they’ve spent a long, long time in her company.
Still, the urge to speculate about her arises from a fascination with the character we actually see. Olivia’s ambition, determination and persistence are always as a mother first, even when her often unwise choices also serve her strong, womanly needs. Perhaps our interest is also whetted by the infrequency of her scenes. The two sharpest, most penetrating scenes in the film both concern her. The first one occurs right after Olivia and Welbrock get married. We follow Mason Jr. and his step-brother, Randy, riding home on their bikes. In a brilliant shot, the boys ride past the open garage and find the beaten Olivia lying on the floor, with a drunken, defiant Welbrock standing over her. The image is swift, nasty, shocking.
The second is even better. Late in the film, Olivia is with the children in a restaurant when the manager, who is about thirty, comes over. He recognizes Olivia as the woman who, some years before, had advised him to go back to school. He tells Mason Jr. and Samantha that Olivia changed his life, and that she is a smart woman. From this, we recall similar scenes from other films. We are led to expect certain familiar things to happen. A minor character from the past will show up and tell the main character something. It is always a good thing, complimentary to the main character, who will beam warmly on hearing it. But that doesn’t happen this time. At first, Olivia registers nothing at all. Her face is a blank. But then, slowly, there is a darkening of her expression, as if unpleasant feelings are surfacing. There is a resentment that is unmistakable. It is as if she thinks, “Sure, a stranger meets me once and it turns his life around. But I struggle my whole life to get this family everything they have, and they think they did it all themselves.”
I’ll conclude this four-part review next time. It will discuss another story where we watched a boy character, and the actor who played him, grow up before our eyes.