There always will be coming of age stories. Since childhood and the "formative years" universally constitute perhaps a quarter of the human experience, at least in terms of time, it seems likely that there will always be writers and filmmakers who will draw on that experience and share it on the silver screen. That’s well and good, so long as they have some golden thoughts to impart.
My Life So Far is about a year in the life of ten year old Fraser Pettigrew, but, frankly, it felt more like two or three years. One guesses that the screenwriter, Simon Donald (who has previously written for television) telescoped the source memoir by Sir Denis Forman (a television executive) for purposes of dramatic cohesion. He achieved the cohesion, but the drama is conspicuously absent.
All the ingredients are present for something wonderful: an eccentric father (Colin Firth) who is capable of talking the special language, "Dog," with his son; a beautiful, loving – and wronged – mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); a stern and crusty old Gamma (Rosemary Harris) who is able to wink wisely at her grandson at the appropriate moment; an exotic French aunt (Irene Jacob) and a rich, sensible, not very likable uncle (Malcolm McDowell). The entire scenario takes place in a turreted, storybook estate on a romantic, storybook Scottish loch in 1927, allowing for period costumes. If you are thinking Masterpiece Theater, you’ve got the idea.
The events that transpire pretty much all come from the Cliff Notes on coming of age stories. The father has crank ideas to pursue, like dynamiting areas of the estate to mine sphagnum moss and creating an underground chimney, which, predictably, ends up belching smoke through cracked seams. Something wondrous has to happen, so a biplane soars out of the sky to land at the estate, piloted by a glamorous, if not adequately explained or developed Frenchman. There is a bogeyman. There is the buxom servant bathing the young boy. There is the exposure to knowledge (if not experience) of sex. (These post-Victorians favor ice cold dips in the loch to quell raging hormones.)
What is missing from this encyclopedia of cliches is any particularly fresh insight into the events that transpire, anything new or profound in the presentation of this boy’s experience, and, most fatally of all, dramatic momentum. The movie starts at a standstill and slows down from there.
It seems a shame really, since the film is so pleasing to look at and so much first class talent has been rounded up. Colin Firth (Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient), only gets the opportunity to display some serious thespian skills near the end of the film, leaving one to think that had this been a more complexly drawn character, the entire proceedings might have been a whole lot more interesting. Mastrantonio is very different here from her recent outing in Limbo; her versatility is apparent. She is subtle in her portrayal, glowingly beautiful, and when, finally, she gets a chance to do some real emoting, totally convincing. Robert Norman as Fraser is a charmer.
But, unfortunately, the whole production merely skims over the surface, characterizations are skin deep, and conversations in Dog generally are rewarded only with Alpo.