Boyhood is a movie about time, a theme made literal—director Richard Linklater filmed the story of a family over the course of 12 years. It’s certainly an audacious cinematic experiment. In lesser hands, that might be all it is. But instead, Boyhood is a quiet marvel that follows its characters with a fondness that builds and a necessary distance that aches in its verisimilitude.
Though filled with rich performances—Ethan Hawke as the overcompensating part-time dad, Patricia Arquette as a beleaguered mother, Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater as Samantha—time is the constant concern at the film’s center. (The movie even opens with Mason observing clouds passing by, an image so encapsulating, it became the poster.) But the sort of observant quiet that becomes a defining trait in Mason—a narrative affinity established with the viewer that’s highlighted by loose camerawork and occasionally-impressionistic editing—loses none of its narrative heft. For every dreamlike summer day and sly callback to a long-ago moment, there’s a family dinner loaded so heavily with potential violence that time seems to stop.
But just as often, the film’s conceit means that the structure is ever-present, every minute preying on our minds by design. As Arquette drives her children from one home to another, we’re meant to wonder how Coltrane felt about leaving those people behind in his own life, as well as of people who have vanished from ours. This vast and risky artistic achievement, executed with a careful but sharply effective low-key style and chronicled with endless compassion, is a reminder of why naturalistic film can be so powerful. Boyhood is a concentrated reflection of life that drifts quietly to few conclusions and quietly crosses over from labor of love to masterpiece.