Few words are more aggravating to a child’s ears than, “They grow up so quickly.” Infants turn to independent beings faster than their parents can absorb their rapid physical and psychological alterations, but for the kids in question, the road to adulthood can seem very long indeed — a literal lifetime, in fact. The unassuming marvel of Norwegian docmaker Aslaug Holm’s “Brothers” is that it somehow conveys both timeframes simultaneously: As Holm’s camera tracks the growth of her two young sons over the course of a decade, the daunting vastness of their journey is as palpable as their watchful mother’s fear that it might pass her by if she looks away for a moment. Inevitable comparisons to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” should serve this lovely film well on the fest circuit, though it’s very much its own intimate creation.
“It seems like a lot of work,” is young Lukas Holm Buvarp’s response to his mother’s explanation of the long-term family project she has in mind, and he’s not wrong. “Brothers” is drawn from over eight years of up-close-and-personal filming so regular and extensive — following Lukas and his older brother, Markus, at home, at school and at play — that the camera begins to play its own determining role in their childhood. Holm’s film might invite accusations of invasiveness from some viewers, though her approach can be surprisingly passive too: In certain scenes that could, under unfilmed circumstances, prompt parental intervention, the director adopts a naturalist’s curiosity as she observes her sons facing everyday conflicts and challenges. That’s not to say the lens is anything but a highly subjective presence here, almost wholly pointed and guided by the woman behind it: At no stage does it capture a fully attended family portrait.
Holm’s own discoveries and insecurities regarding motherhood may figure rather lyrically into her voiceover, but she’s also interested in studying her sons’ individual evolution as personalities in their own right. That may seem difficult to achieve in a film effectively designed as the ultimate act of helicopter parenting, but Lukas and Markus emerge as highly distinct, lucid figures from the outset — they’re too accustomed to the camera to play to it, but are sharp enough, particularly as they get older, to question its intent and influence.
Filming begins in 2007, with the five-year-old Lukas set for his first day at the elementary school also attended by eight-year-old Markus. Though they’re close friends and allies throughout, the brothers don’t reflect or contradict each other in the tidy ways that fiction might determine: Lukas is initially more fanciful and philosophically expressive than the stout-willed, soccer-mad Markus. Such differences, however, prove malleable with age: Holm’s deft editing, invaluably aided by a mother’s good memory, often picks out directly opposing statements from the same lips, wryly demonstrating the dramatic reversals in thinking that a mere year can bring to human works in progress. The soccer pitch is a poignant marker of change here: Lukas’s hostile attitude to the sport — a passion shared by his father and brother — relaxes only as he learns to make his own claim on it.
As the boys move toward adolescence, “Brothers” touches on aspirationally adult developments — the first hazy awareness of sexual urge, the discovery of personal vanity, the cautious mini-rebellion of an ear piercing — that will be recognizable to many viewers, yet don’t seek to generalize or universalize the coming-of-age process. Holm has an eye and ear for her children’s own idiosyncrasies and brands of wit, though she also recognizes when they begin to peel away from the family unit in ways and directions even the camera can’t pursue.
It’s telling that, as the film progresses, Holm’s narration focuses more on her own family history across multiple generations, building to an evocative, incompletely realized rumination on how the ocean has made her clan — descended from fishermen — “strong, hard [and] obstinate.” (Collected home-movie footage from years of family vacations at the same waterside beauty spot provides a running visual motif for this notion.) It’s an oblique tangent that reflects how parenting eventually leads its practitioners back to themselves, as their children drift, however lovingly, beyond their sphere of influence.
As “Brothers” chases a resolution, it’s clear that it must be determined by Holm herself, rather than a specific life event for either of her sons. Suddenly tall and emphatic — in a way that catches viewers off-guard, and surely his parents too — the 16-year-old Markus begins instructing his mother that she needs to stop filming, to which her response is that she’s “trying to finish, but can’t identify an end.” It’s a documentarian’s rephrasing of Patricia Arquette’s already-famous expression of parental ennui from “Boyhood”: “I just thought there’d be more.” Holm’s film, as fascinatingly fluid as the lives it documents, finishes elegantly enough, with the promise of “basically everything” to look forward to for its young subjects — but it can’t know the end just yet.