The one thing many first remark about Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," the Austin director's joyous and life-affirming love letter to adolescence and family, is how he filmed it over the course of 12 years with the same cast. That is no easy feat, but what's even more remarkable than the technical accomplishment is how he has managed to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary, the mundane to the magical, turning everyday life into something worth celebrating.
On paper, not much happens over the course of the film's sprawling 166 minutes. First grader Mason (a remarkable Ellar Coltrane), like most kids his age, is struggling to make sense of his world. His biological dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is away in Alaska, his single mom (Patricia Arquette) is struggling to make ends meet in Texas suburbia, and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) is simply annoying with her Britney Spears imitation.
Mom moves down to Houston for a better job. Dad comes back in the picture, looking for a way to reconnect with his family, but she's soon dating a new guy, Bill (Marco Perella). And so it goes over the next dozen years, as little Mason struggles to find his way in the world and grows up in front of the audience's eyes, trading the safety of boyhood for the mysteries of manhood.
But there's no big, epic event to push the plot forward. There's no crisis to solve, no movie-of-the-week illness. Instead, there are haircuts and Harry Potter. Sure, the outside world - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the presidential election of 2008 - intervenes occasionally, but "Boyhood" is less about the international, and more about the interstitial, those small moments between the big ones.
That shouldn't come as a huge surprise since Linklater, from Slacker and Dazed and Confused through the "Before" movie series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), has long shown a gift for being able to convey the daily grind of life and getting older with wit and sensitivity. In that regard, Boyhood is his greatest accomplishment.
Linklater doesn't always go to expected places. It's perhaps no accident that Bill, a professor, lectures about Pavlov's dog, because there are times when the audience may expect one thing, and Linklater gives them something else. Supposedly free-spirited and non-religious Mason Sr. is a big Obama supporter so, later in the film when his girlfriend's socially conservative, church-going parents are introduced - they give Mason Jr. a Bible and a gun as gifts - it might be expected that we're supposed to laugh at them.
Yet that's not how it all plays out - and Mason Sr. turns out to be pretty familiar with guns himself.
The performances are, for the most part, impressive, with Arquette especially capturing the whirlwind of a woman trying to keep her family together while simultaneously aiming for a career. But it's the previously unknown Coltrane, who's in nearly every scene, who is a revelation. Whether as a curious child or a more taciturn yet thoughtful teen, he makes Mason someone whom we feel we know.
It's not just the acting and the writing that give "Boyhood" its lived-in authenticity. Music plays a big part in that as well, and from the film's opening moments using Coldplay's 2000 hit "Yellow" through the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize?" and Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," "Boyhood" sparks with the familiar sounds of the last decade.
Despite the movie's length, the audience is left wondering what's going to become of this family they've befriended over the preceding 12 years condensed to 2 hours and 46 minutes. So, while it's tempting to say that nothing happens in "Boyhood," that would be wrong. What happens is everything.
5 stars (out of 5)
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
Director: Richard Linklater
Rated: R (strong language, sexual references, teen drug and alcohol use)
Running time: 166 min.