Early in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," little Mason Evans Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, bids farewell to his small Texas hometown and moves with his family to Houston. Upon arrival, something has changed. Mason suddenly looks taller, bigger, older. What happened? Where did the time go?
If you're a parent, you probably know the feeling. "Boyhood," filmed bit by bit over 12 years with the same principal cast, follows Mason's journey from a wide-eyed first-grader to a thoughtful young man entering college. The characters and events are fictional, but the transformations are real. Mason and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's scene-stealing daughter), grow in leaps and bounds over the course of the film, while the actors who play their separated parents -- Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr. and Patricia Arquette as Olivia -- become grayer, heavier, slower. As the film rolls forward, the effect is breathtaking and heart-wrenching, and the power only increases after it's over.
Scene for scene, "Boyhood" can feel modest, even underwhelming. Compelling story lines begin (Marco Perella plays Mason's troubled stepfather) but are never resolved. Little vignettes, like the bullies in a school bathroom, never spell out a consistent theme. In any other movie, this would be a weakness, but here it's a strength. This is how life goes, first in one direction, then another. Sometimes life seems to have no direction at all, as a teenage Mason discovers when adults start using high-pressure words like "future" and "job." A proper narrative would make "Boyhood" feel false, contrived. Its absence feels real.
There has never been a movie like this (Britain's "Up" documentaries, which have tracked the same subjects since 1964, come close), and given the scope of the project there probably never will be. "Boyhood" is an ambitious artistic undertaking, but it's also the rare movie that could resonate with nearly anyone of any age. It's the sight of a life literally flashing before your eyes.
PLOT A boy of 6 grows into a young man of 18 over the course of a single film.
RATING R (sexual references and teen drug and alcohol abuse)
CAST Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette
BOTTOM LINE Richard Linklater's latest feels more like living a life than watching a movie. It's a one-of-a-kind experience.