Boyhood was shot in 39 days, which is modest by Hollywood standards. What isn’t modest is the fact that those 39 days were over the course of 12 years, which allowed writer/director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise) to show the growth of a six-year-old into an 18-year-old college freshman in the span of 166 minutes. The end result is a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

When we first meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) he’s a sweet little boy who often fights with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter). Their parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) are divorced, and mom is essentially raising them on her own with their father only around for an occasional weekend. Nothing particularly interesting here.

But every 10-15 minutes, the story jumps to the next year in their lives, and the results are endlessly fascinating. Mom goes back to school, marries her professor (Marco Perella), and continues to struggle financially. Dad becomes more prominent in their lives when he settles down near them in Texas, and Mason faces the highs and lows of growing pains. Nothing feels forced — everything seems to unfold naturally, just like life, in varied and unpredictable ways.

The scope of the gimmick alone, however, does not make the movie good. Rather, the real quality shines through in the evolution of the story and Linklater’s ability to capture the essential moments of growing up — Mason’s first day in a new school, awkward crushes, first kisses, drinking, etc. — in a way that feels wholeheartedly real. Coltrane was an inexperienced actor when the project began but took lessons in between filming sessions, and the results show, as he’s able to handle the teen angst with precision.

Linklater reminds us the film was literally 12 years in the making by throwing in random cultural references. Gameboys, Wiis, and iPhones are used, the Bush/Kerry and later Obama elections are discussed, and the excitement surrounding the July 2005 release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is chronicled. These cultural elements make the story feel realistic because we the viewers remember living through those times too.

At a time when studios rambunctiously shove the latest fad down our throats, IFC Films deserves credit for the patience it gave Linklater to execute the project. Every summer for a weekend or so the cast and crew reunited with $200,000 of the studio’s money to create the next chapter in Mason’s life, with even Linklater (let alone IFC) not knowing how the story would evolve from one year to the next. (Linklater said he’d check in with Coltrane prior to shooting to see where his life was, then loosely base Mason’s evolution on it.) Boyhood serves as a welcome reminder that talented filmmakers can achieve startling results when given a bit of faith.

If there’s a flaw to nitpick it’s that the story doesn’t have a strong narrative drive, instead settling on being a series of vignettes of adolescence rather than having a definitive three-act structure. This is easily forgivable in that the scope of the project and its novelty make the most impact by film’s end, effectively giving us plenty to marvel at by the time the credits roll.

Watching a stranger literally grow up before your eyes is a rare and unique experience that only something like the movies can provide. No single part of Boyhood will amaze you, but the totality of it will blow you away.

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