Director Richard Linklater approached this decade-spanning project with a novelist’s ambition and patient determination. Reuniting with the same, small group of actors on an annual basis, he made a real coming-of-age story, focusing on six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his estranged parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and following them all until the boy enters his freshman year of college. The resulting film is necessarily episodic in nature but still unique in its rhythms: marriages and remarriages follow in quick succession; characters drop in and out of the story without warning; jump cuts swallow up a year’s worth of off-screen events in an instant. The narrative ebbs and flows easily, ratcheting up the drama to deal with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather and then spinning down again to depict father-and-son bull sessions and low-key teenage mischief.

Linklater has fun dropping in totems of the then-present-day — an iPod here, a Harry Potter book release party there — to function as mile-markers, and it’s equally interesting to see how Linklater’s thematic concerns seem to have evolved. (The apparently earnest foregrounding of sociopolitical elements like the Iraq War and the 2008 Obama campaign is dialed down dramatically in the film’s second half, as Linklater makes peace with the red states.)

Through it all, the pressing concern is the passage of time, which I felt casting a long, dark shadow over the proceedings. (The older you are when you see Boyhood, the more pronounced and poignant I suspect this feeling will be.) It’s expressed most gently in a scene where young Mason stares down blankly at the corpse of a bird, and most urgently in one where his mother packs him up for his final departure to adulthood and wonders if there will be any more ticks on her own timeline. 

Patricia Arquette is fine throughout in a pivotal but generally thankless, un-showy role as the mom who manages, miraculously, to keep her shit together through thick and thin. I was interested to watch Ethan Hawke mature over the course of the film almost as surely as Mason does, recalibrating his performance to dial down the boyish insouciance of the early scenes, which is so overstated here as to be grating. (I get that Hawke’s portrayal of the self-satisfied dude-bro dad is not without auto-critical qualities, and that Arquette’s character’s achievements as single mom are meant to serve in part as an effective and comprehensive rebuke; still, I have long wondered if both he and Linklater overvalue this character type.)

Directors love to say that they make films about people, but more often they make movies about characters — ideas they’ve had and written down and found an engaging mouthpiece for. But Boyhood is a movie about actual people, in the sense that it invites you to just look at the actors up on screen, watching them grow from scene to scene — listening to the way their voices change and seeing the way their bodies expand and contract. The obvious comparisons are to the 7 Up series and of course Harry Potter, though neither of those projects manage to give you the whole package in one sitting — which is the achievement here. Boyhood runs almost three hours in length, which had me griping, a little, on the way into the theater, but extended running time is key to its impact.

Linklater’s confident enough in his subject matter to give entire scenes over to trivial conversations that serve no greater story purpose than just showing us an example of how these people carry themselves, and how they interact with the world around them. Different viewers will have different favorite moments (Boyhood works in large part by churning through a great quantity of moments that resonate in comparison to a viewer’s own experience with parenting or being parented) and they will no doubt find certain individual scenes to be misjudged. But at nearly three hours in length the film is hardy enough to absorb its own missteps. It’s hard to imagine what could be cut without diminishing the rangy scope of the story — and, anyway, the hours fly by. In its conception as well as its nicely understated execution, Boyhood is largely unprecedented in American film.

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