Posted by Joel Copling on June 19, 2014

Some time in the middle of writer/director Richard Linklater's staggering "Boyhood," our main character Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter), and a pair of step-siblings, to whom they have become related over the course of this slice-of-life motion picture, attend the midnight release party for J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in 2005. The camera looms, rather ominously, over the book's cover, and for that split second, the entire rationale for Linklater's 12-year filmmaking experiment, during which he would use the same actors to shoot scenes for a total of 39 days between 2002 and 2013, is understood. This is the passage of time, and the gift that we, as audience members, have is hindsight. For we know what is to happen at the end of the novel, but they do not. The pangs of anxiety about these young people's reaction to the murder of one prominent and beloved character at the wand of another are suddenly heightened, as is nostalgia for the moment fans of Rowling's saga picked up the book for themselves.

Popular culture plays as enormous a role in this immense tapestry as life, which is really what "Boyhood" is about. There is no plot, though there is conflict. There really is no structure, though there is a naturally linear property to how it plays out. Transitions between periods of time are jarring, because these are vignettes of a quartet of lives that see ups and downs, rises and crests. We open to the sounds of Coldplay's "Yellow," and the end credits begin to those of Arcade Fire's "Deep Blue," and music, indeed, also guides us through the turbulence of a difficult childhood and a rebellious youth. The attacks on 9/11 have recently taken place, Facebook and Twitter become household social media, Mason and Samantha become foot soldiers for the 2008 election on the side of Barack Obama, and an amusing conversation takes place between father and son about the possibility of any "Star Wars" movies after 1983's "Return of the Jedi." If nothing else (and there is much more), this is a prime example of how to "date" one's movie.

He doesn't even really know his dad (Ethan Hawke), for whom he is the namesake. Mason Sr. and ex-wife/Mason and Samantha's mother Olivia (a devastating Patricia Arquette) had a falling-out years ago. Mason Sr. reckons they were too young and immature to have a kid, let alone two, but they're Dad's pride and joy. Mom, meanwhile, lives a life of switching between partners, each of whom uses and misuses her. A professor named Bill (Marco Perella) whose class she attends is a controlling, alcholic man with his own kids (Andrew Villareal and Jamie Howard)--the ones who attended the aforementioned midnight release party--who beats her and physically threatens the children (A haircut is a particulary ominous event, and the entire home situation is resolved with terrifying uncertainty).

Years pass, both for us and for these characters (and, by extension, the actors playing them). Olivia marries another man, an Army vet (Brad Hawkins) whose tendencies to control, in particular, Mason suggests to Mason that it's the man's drinking problem what's responsible for it. It's no wonder Mason drinks with friends, parties in his adolescent years with mostly faceless and nameless people with no real significance in his life, and falls in what he thinks at first is love with Sheena (Zoe Graham), a girl he meets at a party. Mason Sr. eventually remarries to Annie (Jenni Tooley), with whom he has a child. Mason develops an interest in photography.

By the time Mason graduates from high school and enters college, the film has accomplished something truly significant: We are no longer merely invested in the lives of characters on the movie screen but proud of real people, and in a way, it actually is pride in real people. Coltrane graduated high school roughly around the same time Mason does, and the actor, so naturalistic and stunning in the year's best performance so far, is staggering in the way he is able to coax these completely natural emotions from his audience. Lorelei Linklater is his equal, Hawke is terrific as an initially slacker-ish, eventually paternal father who loves his kids as much as he regrets how things turned out with Olivia, and Arquette is intensely moving, especially in her final scenes, as Olivia comes to terms with empty nest syndrome. All of the actors, really, bring a stunning and necessary gravitas to roles that more than mimic real life. It's all uncannily lived-in and warm, epic at nearly three hours but intimate in nearly every way that the term implies.

"Boyhood" is a masterful filmmaking experiment, honing in on the human story as an experience in mundane (without, it should be noted, becoming mundane itself) recollections recalled in real time (no flashbacks or narration--cheap tricks far too simple for the effect for which Linklater is going), parsing the difference between what is meandering and unfocused (The former is an inherent quality in the film's structure, but it doesn't, as some have suggested, automatically lead to anticlimax) and what is deliberately slice-of-life (Everything here has significance for its characters, and the actors, especially Coltrane, seem to draw from real-life circumstances and perhaps periods in their lives to play those notes) to show us exactly what the title suggests: a boyhood unencumbered by contrived drama and blessed with uncompromising truthfulness. This is, if it isn't already clear, one of 2014's best films and likely its most ambitious.

Film Information

Ellar Coltrane (Mason), Patricia Arquette (Olivia), Ethan Hawke (Mason Sr.), Lorelai Linklater (Samantha), Jenni Tooley (Annie), Zoe Graham (Sheena), Marco Perella (Prof. Bill Welbrock), Brad Hawkins (Jim), Charlie Sexton (Jimmy), Tom McTigue (Mr. Turlington), Richard Robichaux (Mason's Boss), Evie Thompson (Jill), Jamie Howard (Mindy), Andrew Villarreal (Randy), Richard Jones (Grandpa Cliff), Karen Jones (Nana), Libby Villari (Grandma), Jessi Mechler (Nicole), Steven Prince (Ted), Elijah Smith (Tommy), Cambell Westmoreland (Kenny), Tamara Jolaine (Tammy), Barbara Chisholm (Carol), Cassidy Johnson (Abby), Jennifer Griffin (Mrs. Darby), Jordan Howard (Tony), Nick Krause (Charlie), Angela Rawna (Prof. Douglas), Roland Ruiz (Enrique), Bill Wise (Uncle Steve), Maximillian McNamara (Dalton), Taylor Weaver (Barb).

Directed and written by Richard Linklater.

Rated R (language including sexual references, teen drug/alcohol use).

166 minutes.

Released in select cities on July 11, 2014.