In the movie “Boyhood,” we watch as a kid named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up from a little boy into a nearly grown young man, living with his mom and sister in a series of Texas towns, solidifying his relationship with an unsteady father, struggling through schools and step-parents and girlfriends and himself until, in the film’s final scenes, he starts college.
Audiences might think they’ve seen this kind of coming-of-age story before. But they’ve never seen a film like “Boyhood,” which in the hands of writer-director Richard Linklater turns from classic cinematic portraiture into something epic, transcendent and monumental. Filmed for a few days every year over 12 years, “Boyhood” breaks open a brand new genre: a fictional drama contoured and shaped by reality; a lightly scripted ensemble piece executed by both professional and non-professional actors; an experiment in time, narrative and cinematic practice that utterly transforms the boundaries of what film can look like and feel like and achieve.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about “Boyhood” is that it draws no attention to its own lofty ambitions. Working in his signature style of observational understatement, Linklater simply allows viewers to eavesdrop and watch, unnoticed, as Mason and his family go about their daily business. But within that simple premise, Linklater discovers multiple emotions and meanings, the film equivalent of a world in a drop of water.
When “Boyhood” opens, 6-year-old Mason — dreamy, easily distracted, watchfully quiet — is being harangued by his mom, Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette), about his behavior in school, while his bossy older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter), annoys him by singing Britney Spears over and over. When Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) shows up from working in Alaska, he comes bearing gifts and the loosey-goosey aura of the circus coming to town. But as “Boyhood” progresses, Dad begins to embrace fatherhood more seriously. One of the film’s most touching and funny scenes occurs in a bowling alley, where the hapless father tries to engage Mason in a just-buds chat about the facts of life (“We can do this!”).
Indeed, much of “Boyhood” has to do with how Mason becomes a man — under the tutelage of his own childish but earnest father, by watching the problematic men his mom becomes involved with, and even within the context of the sexist, epithet-laden rhetoric of his peers. By the time Mason, now a deep-voiced teenager, affects an earring, blue nail polish and an artistic interest in photography, viewers get the feeling that he’s dodged at least most of the misogynist conditioning of a boy’s life.
Seamlessly constructed by Linklater and his longtime editor, Sandra Adair, “Boyhood” unfolds with the flowing, unforced rhythms of a river, or real life. The film moves with such fluid, spontaneous ease that it takes a while to realize how overwhelming an enterprise it really is. Elaborating on the familiar time-lapse tropes of Michael Apted’s “7 Up” documentary series and countless YouTube videos, Linklater has refined that rhetoric to create not just a stunt, but also a bona fide piece of cinema that works both as art and mesmerizing entertainment.
Coltrane, a non-professional from Linklater’s adopted hometown of Austin, is the clear star of “Boyhood,” but Hawke and Arquette’s performances are among the finest in both of their careers: In many ways, the movie is as much about their characters’ changing self-conceptions and complicated relationship as it is about Mason’s own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it youth.
Because it was filmed in real time, “Boyhood” organically reflects the material culture and political touchstones of the ’90s and early 2000s — the Iraq War, the Obama-McCain campaign of 2008, Harry Potter. Over time, the music changes from Spears and Weezer to Cee Lo Green and Daft Punk, becoming a vividly compressed time capsule of social history, tastes and pop signifiers. But mostly, “Boyhood” is about someone finding himself — or, perhaps more accurately, a self finding him. Linklater took a chance on casting Coltrane as a 5-year-old, there being no guarantee that he would be as cute or charismatic as an awkward college freshman. Luckily, he’s watchable at every age, encountering milestones big and small with watchful, reflective intensity.
Some of those milestones are obvious, such as the 15th birthday when Mason receives a Bible, a blue suit and a 20-gauge shotgun from his family. But most are small — those fleeting, quotidian interludes that no filmmaker other than Linklater would deem worth noticing, let alone valorizing as worthy of narrative attention. Like his fellow Austinite Terrence Malick, Linklater is interested in philosophical questions about time and family and identity and consciousness. But unlike Malick’s similarly themed “Tree of Life,” “Boyhood” is free of fussy auteurist gestures and self-conscious grandiosity.
What makes Linklater great is that he possesses the modesty and confidence to simply observe banal, otherwise forgettable non-events, then invest them with scale and sweep and deep significance. As a film that dares to honor small moments and the life they add up to, “Boyhood” isn’t just a masterpiece. It’s a miracle.
★ ★ ★ ★
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains profanity, including sexual references, and teen drug and alcohol use. 166 minutes.