You've watched actors grow up on screen before, whether it be Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor or Jerry Mathers (as the Beaver). But Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" makes cinematic poetry of the experience by presenting us with a single narrative consumable in one sitting, shot (on 35mm film) in 39 days over 12 years with the same cast.
True to his own form, Linklater fashions this inherently remarkable material with considerable restraint and trusty intuition hitting the jackpot in the casting of Ellar Coltrane as the film's central character, Mason. When we first meet Mason, at age 6, it is "Aspiration Day" at the grade school, and Mason's choice is to aspire the clouds, lying in the green grass, cherubic face up, on a blue-sky day. In the first of many pointed cultural-timeline markers, Linklater rather fearlessly uses an ultra-familiar pop song to underscore this near-universal experience of American childhood: Coldplay's "Yellow" ("Look at the stars, see how they shine for you..."). Indeed, the world -- and the film -- are Mason's oysters: The possibilities are endless, and the perspective belongs to him.
Along comes Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette in a career-best role), and soon enough we meet his vivacious (read bratty) sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) and their father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), divorced but re-involved with his kids after a stint working in Alaska. Others come and go -- most notably two more unfortunate husbands for Olivia -- but this is the story of a (fractured) family of four over the period of a childhood, culminating in a young adult's release into the wild, a bookend of the opening scene's endless possibility as a new phase of life stretches to the horizon.
An authentic performer, Coltrane crucially provides a natural, resonant presence giving anchor to an intentionally slippery narrative. "Boyhood" is a film of moments on the path of child development: some of them obvious (a birthday, a graduation day) but most of them ordinary, though meaningful to Mason (talks with Olivia, outings with Mason Sr.). Some are likely to resonate with just about any male (leering at models in a catalog, feigning sickness in an attempt to stay home from school); others are more specific to Mason's emerging character, including semi-autobiographical elements mined from Coltrane's own development (and, of course, a childhood marked by divorce, like Linklater's, will speak to roughly half the American audience).
When Mason Sr. expertly skips a stone across a lake, it's an unspoken metaphor for the passage of time and the film itself. At the film's quiet emotional climax, a reedy, self-possessed, 18-year-old, college-bound Mason asks a fretful Olivia, "Aren't you jumping ahead by, like, 40 years?" The meta moment, with a heartbreaking response I won't spoil, describes life's great anxiety: the ways in which it seems to skip ahead on us. Linklater repeatedly presences this feeling by seamlessly editing through the annual gaps in filming. No title cards announce the passage of a year: The characters simply pass into a new frame one year older, and in the children's cases, usually startlingly so.
"Boyhood" does leave something to be desired, but so does life. I wish that the acting were less stilted in spots, and suspect that a bit more shape would have made for a yet richer, yet more thought-provoking experience. But as that greatest of screen rarities -- a potentially mainstream experimental film -- the writer-director earns a bit of slack in gratitude for the strange and wonderful gift "Boyhood" is, Shakespeare's proverbial "mirror up to life" that is art's highest function.
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use. Two hours, 45 minutes.