By Nell Minow,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Love-it-or-hate-it film best for older teens.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Violence & Scariness
Suicide, gunfight, characters killed.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
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Some strong language.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Drinking, scene in a bar, drug references.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this movie has some very strong language and scenes of cartoon violence, including a shoot-out and a self-immolation. Some teens may be upset by the discussions of death.
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Where to Watch
Based on 4 parent reviews
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What's the Story?
WAKING LIFE doesn't really tell a story. It is just a journey by an unnamed main character (played by Wiley Wiggins) who wanders through an Alice-in-Wonderland-style journey that may or may not be a dream, meeting all kinds of very odd people, many of whom tell him their views on consciousness and the purpose of existence. It recalls director/screenwriter Linklater's first film, Slackers, which showed us a series of loosely linked people expressing views on everything from Madonna's pap smear to the assassination of William McKinley, and his later film, Before Sunrise, in which a young couple meets on a train and spend the rest of the movie walking around Vienna and talking about just about everything. The couple from Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, reprise their roles in one scene, lying in bed talking about consciousness after death. Other actors and characters from Linklater's earlier films flicker through this one as well, their out-of-context familiarity adding to the dreaminess and disorientation. This film is animated. Actually, it is rotoscoped -- originally shot on film (digital film, in this case), then animators paint over the photographed images of real people. Each scene or character had a different group of animators, though the overall look of the film is very consistent.
Is It Any Good?
People will react very strongly to this movie – they will either love it or hate it. Those who will enjoy it are people who have a lot of tolerance for all-night college dorm discussions of the meaning of life, because this entire movie is a series of monologues and dialogues that are variations on that theme. The animation here offers an extraordinary sense of documentary, even hyper-reality from the ambient noise of the audio and the fact that many of the monologues are delivered by people who are not actors. At times, shapes shift to reflect the discussion.
The monologues themselves are like jazz improvisations, wildly playful, bringing in an astonishing assortment of references and concepts. I think the secret to enjoying this movie is not to engage too much with the individual arguments and points of view but just to allow your ears and spirit to enjoy the fact that there are people who feel passionately about these ideas and who are willing to talk about them to other people with an openness I find humbling and touching. The people who want "real human moments," or "holy moments" of genuine connection come across as authentically vulnerable. Of course, other characters come across as people who talk all the time and barely notice if anyone is listening, but most of the people Wiggins meets want to help him in their own way.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about their own views on the meaning of life and which, if any, of the characters are closest to their own thoughts about dreams and reality. Is it possible to create "lucid dreams?" Is there a reason that a film-maker might be particularly attracted to this idea – could film be a kind of generalized lucid dream? When you are dreaming, are you aware that you are dreaming? How do you know? What does it mean to say that there's only one moment or to talk about the eternal yes? Does this movie make you want to know more about any of the authors or ideas it raises?
- In theaters: October 19, 2001
- On DVD or streaming: May 7, 2002
- Cast: Eamonn Healy, Robert Solomon, Wiley Wiggins
- Director: Richard Linklater
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 99 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language and some violent images
- Last updated: April 3, 2023
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