On reexamination I can't help but believe that the film would not be receiving any of its plaudits if it were not for the real aging on screen. An interesting idea, and I'm sure a difficult task, but this film did not use it well at all. Anyway that's one of the two things that stands out still in a slightly positive way. The other is a performance. I admit the majority of performances also went downhill for me as well. Ellar Coltrane as the Mason Jr. is just passable as a boy and seems to have no real investment in the later scenes, he performs as though he's a kid fulfilling a duty he stopped caring about a long time ago. Lorelei Linklater, as Mason's sister Samantha, is manic in her first few years then seems to have lost all motivation. In some of her more serious scenes she always smiles in a way like a person does when they're really trying hard to keep a straight face but just can't. Oh and Patricia Arquette as Mason's mother, I did not believe her for a second as their mother, and every line of her's felt forced. Even in the basic moment of anger toward evil step-dad it seems a bit halfhearted. I won't even get into the long list of horrible supporting players. Luckily there is one man who knows what he is doing.
That man being Richard Linklater's frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke who plays Mason's father Mason Senior. Mason Senior is divorced from Mason's mother before the film starts. It is some time before Hawke's first appearance as Senior does not take a particularly active role in his children's lives at first. He does show up though to take the children out bowling. Hawke at first takes an excessively enthusiastic approach as Senior acts though he is interested in everything little thing about his kids and constantly tries to praise them as much as he can. Hawke lays it on a bit thick but in doing so takes the right approach for the part. Hawke portrays this enthusiasm as technically a bit of an act, he does care about his kids, but Hawke suggests that Mason Senior is trying a little too hard to convince his kids that he loves them. In his overt energy Hawke suggests that Senior is trying very much to make up for his time away. Hawke creates Senior as a very inexperienced father as it all is a bit too much, and conveys the way it all overwhelms Mason a bit. Hawke portrays the youth in Mason Senior well and expresses the way in which that youth keeps him from being the best father.
Hawke disappears again for some time until he comes to take them out again, during the reign of alcoholic tyrant, which never comes up in Hawke's storyline although that's a good thing for Hawke. Hawke again keeps that same overt enthusiasm as Senior is still trying hard to make up for time, but Hawke nicely portrays that he has relaxed a bit. Most importantly though Hawke is effective in quietly showing some maturation in Senior's manner by removing some of the unease of his first appearance. The film continues to keep Hawke in these weekend trip appearances, and Hawke continues to be good in these scenes. He is terrific by so gradually and honestly portraying the way Senior grows as a father. In his third appearance there is an even stronger warmth that comes from his portrayal as he shows Mason Senior becoming a better father as well as a man. The wisdom nuggets of the film often fall ridiculously flat except the ones delivered by Hawke. Perhaps this is that he's on the same wavelength as Linklater, or perhaps the best at improvisation, but when Hawke speaks the words they actually seem to have meaning.
In his last two acts Mason Senior has started another family but of course still spends time with his ever growing kids. In his last two sections Hawke nicely rounds out the character as he finally seems to become the father he perhaps needed to be originally. Hawke is very good by portraying that more than anything that Senior has accepted his place. Hawke does not play this as though this is a bad thing, even if he makes a few snarky jokes, but rather Senior finally understanding what is that he needs to be. Although he might still have reservations Hawke gives a happy man in the end, and a much better father than he was in the beginning. Hawke wholly earns this transformation from almost a kid himself to finally the old man giving some much needed advice to his son. Every scene Hawke built to, although Hawke still does well to give little hints of Senior's past, to Mason Senior finally comprehending and fulfilling his role, although technically maybe a bit too late. This is a very good performance by Hawke, it's true he benefits from an actual character arc, but to Hawke's credit he succeeds in creating this largely through his performance. It's even more than that though as he finds the complexity of an inexperienced young man's relationship with his children and his attempt to connect with him. Hawke actually creates the sense of time passing through the growth we find in Mason Senior as a man rather than simply seeing the passage because he ages. Hawke's work stands well above the film as he makes Mason Senior the only element in the film that is consistently compelling.