A real audience splitter, with little middle-ground between experiencing life-affirming joy or crushing tedium.
There’s no denying the ambition and commitment of the project, spanning a full 12 years as Mason Evans Jr (Ellar Coltrane) grows from a chubby faced six-year-old to an 18-year-old college kid pondering the point of life.
The film has been described as a quasi-autobiographical love letter to Richard Linklater’s home state of Texas, and the director even revisits a couple of locations from his earlier Slacker and Dazed And Confused.
The story ranges from Houston, San Marcos, Austin and Bastrop to the wild deserts of West Texas, but the usual budgetary constraints meant keeping as much of the filming as possible around the Austin area, beginning in an unspecified town in 2002 (the passage of time is never obviously stated but the music carefully establishes the period).
Divorced mum Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is keen to relocate with Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) to the big city of Houston where she can attend college, finish her degree and get a decent job. In fact, the local school from which she collects Mason actually is in Houston. It’s Atherton Elementary School, 2011 Solo Street.
Amicably separated husband Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) visits regularly for weekends with the kids. The local bowling alley in which they spend so many hours together as the years pass, is Dart Bowl, 5700 Grover Avenue, in Austin. But when Olivia attends university, that really is Houston.
The solidly square deco building where seemingly nice professor Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella) lectures on Pavlov’s dogs, is the Ezekiel W Cullen Building in the Cullen Family Plaza on the University of Houston’s campus.
Olivia and the prof get on extraordinarily well and by 2005 are married. It’s Austin again as Mason and Samantha, along with a pair of new step-siblings, queue up for the midnight launch of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, a real event filmed guerrilla-style, at BookPeople, 603 North Lamar Boulevard. An independent bookstore founded in 1970, BookPeople has flourished to become the largest of its kind in the state of Texas.
The first bad omen for the marriage comes with Prof Bill’s regular stops at the liquor store. ‘King Liquor’, where he stocks up on booze “just in case we have guests”, is now Brodie’s Liquor, 7612 Brodie Lane at Harpers Ferry Lane, southeast Austin.
Never mind, flaky but cool and caring bio-dad is on hand to take the kids on a day out in Houston and, for a while, the real city takes centre stage.
Mason Sr gives them a little football coaching in the nearby grounds of the Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park Conservancy, 6000 Hermann Park Drive (that’s the theatre’s peaked roof in the background), before taking them to the big game.
They watch a real match between Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers at Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford Street, filmed in April 2006 (though the shots of Roger Clemens are taken from an earlier event in August 2005).
Back at the family home, Bill – increasingly influenced by alcohol – is becoming unreasonably authoritarian. After a severe, and unwanted, haircut, Mason returns grumpily to Joe Dan Mills Elementary School, 6201 Davis Lane, Austin (though at least one girl in class appreciates his shaved head).
As Bill’s behaviour turns violent, Olivia and her kids are obliged to move out and it’s time to start at another school. ‘Webster Junior High’, to which the kids are reluctantly relocated after the split up, is Perez Elementary School, 7500 South Pleasant Valley Road, on Onion Creek, south Austin.
Samantha opts out of a weekend in the wilds, so it’s a boys’ trip as Mason Sr takes his son camping, swimming, and – erm – returning their gifts to the earth, at Pedernales Falls State Park, 2585 Park Road 6026, on the Pedernales River about ten miles east of Johnson City.
When Olivia gets a lecturing position in San Marcos, it’s time for another move. The ‘San Marcos’ school where Mason passively endures bullying, is Bedichek Middle School, 6800 Bill Hughes Road, Austin, which was previously seen in Dazed And Confused.
That is, though, the real San Marcos where Mason walks home, with school-chum Jill (the one who doesn’t like the Twilight books). It’s on the alleyway running alongside the Texas Music Theater from East San Antonio Street in front of Hays County Courthouse, that Jill tells him classmate Sheena has a crush on him, kicking off Mason’s first adolescent romance.
Mason Sr, too, remarries and Mason Jr and Samantha are taken to meet their new, rather conservative, grandparents, who live on a ranch in Lost Pines, Bastrop.
Now it’s time for Austin to shine as itself, as Mason and Sheena (Zoe Graham) visit Samantha.
The city is famed for its nightlife and music scene, and Mason and Sheena are soon taking in a country band at the Continental Club, 1315 South Congress Avenue. A premiere club for live music since 1957, the Continental featured in Linklater’s Slacker back in 1989.
There’s a Slacker-type moment with the rambling stream-of-consciousness guy sitting alone in the the all-night Magnolia Cafe South, 1920 South Congress Avenue, as Mason and Sheena enjoy queso at three in the morning.
The smart Cafe Josie, 1200 West 6th Street, is where Olivia finally informs her kids that she’s selling the house and moving on.
Moving on too is Mason, off to Sul Ross State University in Alpine, in West Texas. He drives through the spectacular countryside, stopping at the (now closed) Roadrunner Deli in Terlingua for gas, where he takes some arty photographs. It’s hard not to.
He arrives at Sul Ross, in front of the Briscoe Administration Building, moving into a dorm room in Fletcher Hall to meet new roommate, his girlfriend and her roommate, Nicole.
The four hike in Big Bend State Park, where Mason talks to Nicole about the importance of seizing the moment, and it seems a new chapter is about to begin.
You can see the park's dramatic scenery at the opening of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, as well as in Fred Schepisi’s 1982 Western Barbarosa, with Willie Nelson and Gary Busey, and as the interior of the fantastic island in Robert Rodriguez’s inventive Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams.