Boyhood is one of the few films that manages to succeed because of the "how" behind its execution. In most cases, the more a movie reminds you that what you're watching is fake, the more the reality of its unreality creeps into your head. The classic example is seeing a boom mic drop into the top of a frame. Almost always, that's a problem with the way the projectionist has framed the movie, but it takes you out of the story for a second to acknowledge it: "Oh yeah, this isn't real. There's a guy on the end of that microphone I'm not supposed to know is there."
Boyhood is a different kind of artifice. It's the story of a child's formative years, unfolding chronologically. There's no incident or specific throughline it follows; it's just a boy growing up. It could have started at birth or continued well into adulthood and the storytelling would have been the same. To achieve the effect, director Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, School of Rock) shot this film a little at a time for more than a decade. Let's put that in perspective: He was working on Boyhood before either of the films just mentioned.
A lot can go wrong over a dedicated decade-plus production schedule. If you cast Ethan Hawke as the boy's father and Hawke dies halfway through—then what? You can't go back and recast the dad, so you'd have to rewrite where the movie goes from that point. You don't really know what you're getting with a 5-year-old actor, the funding could dry up, or you could pull a classic Orson Welles and work on something for so long that putting it all together would take even longer, and what's the point?
Somehow, it all comes together, and Linklater has made a powerful motion picture. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a smart and curious boy, but he doesn't say a whole lot. He lives with his mother (Patricia Arquette), who juggles part-time work and part-time school, and his father (Hawke) has left Texas for a better-paying job in Alaska. Mom bounces around from bad relationship to bad relationship, moving from Houston to San Marcos, Texas, and dad filters in and out of Mason's life before eventually settling elsewhere in the Lone Star State.
Many of these chapters could be individual films (or at least standalone short episodes in a series) if Linklater had written them a little bit differently, going for a big narrative arc in each one. He doesn't, though. In some years, very little of consequence happens. But we do get to know the characters more deeply, and we see how his parents, in particular, shape the young man we'll meet at the end of the story.
The impact of those chapters is not on your comprehension of the story, which is one of the many details that makes Boyhood such a great film. There really is a kind of wallop in meeting Ethan Hawke in his mid-30s and seeing an actor you know so well age so much over a few hours. It's a little different with Ellar Coltrane, because we don't know him, and you expect a lot more change in someone during all those tender years, but it's still a conscious reaction to watching years fly by when you watch his awkward phases. It forces you to reflect on yourself and those you love—where in the hell does the time go?
There are tiny quibbles to be had—the film is almost as long as The Godfather, Ellar Coltrane isn't a great actor, his step-fathers are irritatingly one-dimensional—but Boyhood pushes them to the outskirts. There's a moment, and it will be different for everyone, when you stop looking forward at Mason's journey and start to look back. And that individual trigger, whatever it is for you, is the power of Boyhood, one of the best films of 2014, hands down.