Movie review: ‘Boyhood’ is growing up for real

Life happens: Ellar Coltrane in
Life happens: Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood."

‘Boyhood’
★★★★

Simply put, “Boyhood” is an extraordinary film about ordinary life.

There’s never been anything quite like it, probably because the odds against it working out, even on a purely practical level, must have seemed enormous in the beginning.

Writer/director Richard Linklater (“Slacker,” “Before Midnight”) set out 12 years ago to create a fictional story of a boy growing up from grade school to college, meeting with his actors a few days each year to adjust the script and shoot some scenes. His actors could have lost interest, gotten sick, even died, funding could have dried up, any number of things could have gone wrong. Undoubtedly, some things did.

Yet Linklater’s vision and faith paid off, resulting in a film that’s not only a subtly moving portrait of childhood and parenthood, but a time capsule of American life over the past dozen years.

We first see Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the boy in “Boyhood,” at the age of 7, when he’s lying on his back gazing at clouds. He’s being raised with his sassy sister Sam (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, terrific throughout) by his harassed, single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) while Mason Sr. (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke) gallivants in Alaska.

Mason Sr. returns, during that first phase, but remains a loving, yet distant, absentee dad — a wannabe musician in a Pontiac GTO. Olivia decides to move to Houston so she can go back to school, escape from her dead-end job and better provide for her kids. And the clock just starts running.

Mason and Sam get bigger, bit by bit, graduating from grade school to middle school to high school and beyond, a couple of bad-choice step dads (including an abusive drunk) come and go, childhood friends appear and disappear, as do boyfriends and girlfriends later, while mom and dad hover, fret, lecture, get thick around the middle and sprout gray hairs — a few momentous events and a countless number of small joys and sorrows. All provide a powerful sense of real life passing in real time.

Other films have attempted something similar. Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series of documentaries has tracked a group of English kids every seven years from 1964 on and Linklater’s own “Before” series (also featuring Hawke) checks in every nine years on the fictional romance of a man and a woman.

But the passage of time and its effect on a cast have never been tracked so closely in one film, condensing 12 years into 166 minutes. We see Mason change from a dreamy kid into a thoughtful, artistic, perhaps a tad depressive college kid, and we see how the events that effected his life effected ours — the war in Iraq, an ever-changing array of video games, the “Harry Potter” phenomenon, the Obama presidencies. The contemporary elements Linklater documented while shooting each year already seem nostalgic now.

Time is virtually a character in “Boyhood.” Texas is another (for his 15th birthday, Mason’s grandparents give him a Bible and a shotgun), and so is Mason Sr.’s GTO, considering how attached Mason becomes to it. But Linklater is after something bigger here, namely the way all of those things, and countless others large and small, join together and add up to a life.

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