'Boyhood' star Ellar Coltrane was 6 when he started Richard Linklater's film. (Matt Lankes / IFC Films)
Life is the small things. Two bullies in a school bathroom. Waving goodbye to a friend you’ll never see again as you move to another town. The dweeb from work who shows up at your graduation party.
Sure, there are big things, too. But most of “Boyhood,” the transcendent film from director Richard Linklater, has to do with the smaller particles, the everyday moments and scares and joys.
That time your dad took you camping. Your first girlfriend and first breakup. The discovery of some vague carcass in the dirt. Your stepfather driving drunk, a 7-year-old ogling a lingerie magazine, your older sister driving you crazy with her Britney Spears impersonation.
Linklater has crafted what may be the most ingenious film of the century here and given it a tone like no other by shooting the movie in bits and pieces over 12 years, following 6-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows to be 18.
The constants in his life are his older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) and his struggling mother (Patricia Arquette). Dropping in sporadically at first and then more regularly is his dad (Ethan Hawke), a natural wanderer who loves the kids but is irresponsible.
It’s Mason’s life, but it’s also very much the life of a nomadic, broken family, especially through the film’s first half, where Arquette — who shines throughout — plays a desperate mother who decides to go back to school so she can eventually earn a decent living. There she meets and marries a professor (the chillingly real Marco Perella) with two kids of his own.
Their initial bliss turns ugly as alcohol takes over the professor’s life, and soon the family is unstable again. It’s a pattern that runs through the life of Mason’s mom, and thus it runs through his.
And yet time streams on. Mason endures a bad haircut and goes to a ball game with his always energetic dad and sister. The kids endure dad’s rambling but heartfelt admonitions about dating and sex. Time is measured out in woodsy walks and bike rides down suburban streets.
Yes, there are scenes that seem less than polished, line readings that occasionally go astray, but somehow these all blend nicely into Linklater’s umbrella of realism. Life is clumsy, improvised, brusque.
One of the film’s subtle wonders is how the script bends to real events that Linklater could not have prefigured. Here’s Mason dressed as Harry Potter, going to a midnight book release party; now his mom is dating an Iraq War veteran. The film doesn’t simply capture the characters, it follows the world they’re (we’re) living in.
But the characters do remain center stage, and as Mason grows, the camera settles on him more and more. Linklater was either lucky, blessed or both in choosing these kids because they grow in confidence as actors without ever pushing past the film’s naturalism.
The great beauty and yet the great sadness of the film is that it ends at what is Mason’s next beginning, his move to college, on the brink of manhood and more. Arquette has an outburst late on as she realizes her children are going on without her and everything suddenly feels so hollow.
But for Mason, and the audience, this life is really just getting starting. And we wish “Boyhood” would go on and on and on.
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Running time: 165 minutes