As a lifelong filmmaker, McElwee is well-suited to make a film about himself and his son. Juxtaposing footage of Adrian as a cheerful kid with the now-sullen and shiftless adult is striking in its universality, Boyhood if the titular boy was just awful. The joy of taking apart a delicious crab cake melts into the banality of slugging down the hundredth iced coffee. This clever editing sells the viewer on McElwee's love for his son, because the adult Adrian is a chore to be around. Uninterested in college, he sits at home and works piecemeal on several different projects. There's a novel in the works, and he's designed some t-shirts, and there's always ski videos to edit, which basically come down to footage of his friends horsing around on the slopes. While many people have likely gone through a period like this, documenting the drudgery of witnessing it must have been a frustrating task for McElwee.
Utterly stumped by how to get his son out of this rut, McElwee leaves the country for France, where he spent a few years in his early-20's. He attempts to find his old girlfriends from this time, as well as a man who hired him as an assistant photographer to capture weddings and other events. McElwee remembers this time very fondly, and hopes to gain some insight into how he can get his son onto a similar path. Upon return to the French coastal town where he spent these formative years, he notices how tourist-y the place has gotten, while allowing for the possibility that it was always tourist-y and he just didn't notice it previously. He runs into a few people from his past, or who at least remember/knew his boss/girlfriends, though they are at best, moderately helpful. Ultimately unable to reconnect to this idealized past, McElwee returns home to his family.
Photographic Memory has some interesting things to say about the transience of memory, and how it changes over time to edit out the bad and accentuate the good. It also depicts a father's dilemma, while coming up with no easy answers. The kind-voiced McElwee, always narrating, is a welcome companion on this trip, and it's easy to see how the French town could occupy such an exalted place in his life. As the instigator of the documentary, however, Adrian is a black hole, a complete stereotype that doesn't display a shred of joy or warmth or motivation. The childhood footage of him is a must, lest the adult be utterly intolerable. The love McElwee has for his son is rooted in the kid that was, and the man that might be. This middle stage, though, is tough. Photographic Memory's big takeaway is empathy for all the parents of drifting young adults out there. May you one day get your homes back. B-