Childhood, as you know, can be total garbage. There is rude, ugly surprise waiting for every newborn, and how much of it you’re subjected to depends on how the random, chaotic elements of life arrange themselves during your most vulnerable years. Parents, money, education, geography, gender, sexuality, race, you name it, it all comes into play. You’re lucky if you make it to 18 unscathed. Strike that, reverse it; you’re not lucky at all. If nothing bad happens to you during those years you’re going to grow up to be an entitled jerk with no regard for any other living being. Better you should suffer a little.
The boy of Boyhood, a kid named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), suffers a little, but just enough to teach him that life will keep throwing him challenges. Early in the nearly three-hour film, Mason's on-again-off-again Dad (Ethan Hawke) encourages his whining six year old to buck up in a bowling alley plagued with gutterballs by announcing, “Life doesn’t give you bumpers.”
Yes, nearly three hours. Not quite as long as Transformers: Age of Extinction. With a plot that’s impossible to describe any other way than “a kid grows up before your eyes.” So of course you’re in. And if you’re not you should be because you've never seen anything quite like this. Richard Linklater’s adventurous experiment, a movie shot for short periods of time over the course of a dozen summers, is a timeless time capsule, a low-key home movie of contemporary Texas life, and the most original, non-Snowpiercer narrative film of the summer.
It’s the early 2000s. Mason, an average white kid from Nowhere In Particular, Texas, lives with his Mom (Patricia Arquette). They're working class, sometimes struggling. His older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is as mouthy and antagonistic as Mason is quiet, thoughtful and observant. Mom’s about to take the kids to Houston so that she can go back to school and eventually make a better living. The bumpy road begins here.
For the next twelve years, through smooth, graceful editing, everyone ages on camera, minor vignettes of life flow into one another, and time pushes forward. They bounce from home to home. There’s money and then there isn’t. New schools, puberty, hair in the face, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Roger Clemens, lying about sex, having actual sex, your “cool” biological Dad forcing music on you, your “cool” biological Dad becoming uncool, breaking promises, learning what you’re good at, trying beer, trying weed, that moment the scale tips and you realize you genuinely hate the alcoholic jerk your mother married: it’s all here, a growing pile of moments lived by one kid who's slowly growing into a good-hearted, soft-spoken young man.
Without a tight, committed cast, something like this falls apart, but the non-pro child actors react to and rise to the level of Arquette and Hawke, with everyone delivering the kind of intimate, lived-in performances that form a solid framework for the story's series of fortunate and unfortunate events. Linklater's ability to distill that sprawl into a coherent narrative of detailed adolescent maturity sets it far ahead of the coming-of-age pack. This one is very different -- heartfelt and sweet but not mushy, painful but wise, full of empathy and fully realized detail, its specificity transforming into universality, an achievement of time and love that's already among the best films about childhood (and parenthood) you'll ever have the pleasure to watch.