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‘Boyhood’: Simple yet universal epic that feels like real life

“Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane (front right) is 9 this scene with Lorelei Linklater who plays his older sister Ethan Hawke

“Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane (front right) is 9 in this scene with Lorelei Linklater, who plays his older sister, and Ethan Hawke, as his often absent dad. The actors aged 12 years over the course of the movie’s shooting schedule. | IFC FILMS

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‘BOYHOOD’ ★★★★

Mason Ellar Coltrane

Olivia Patricia Arquette

Mason Sr. Ethan Hawke

Samantha Lorelei Linklater

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Richard Linklater. Running time: 160 minutes. Rated R (for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: August 19, 2014 6:10AM

Parents will tell you: it all goes by so fast.

One minute your son is cuddly and adorable and all yours — dressing up as Harry Potter for a midnight book party, riding his bike in wobbly fashion, clinging to you like you’re the center of the universe — and then BAM! Just like that, he’s got a shockingly deep voice and he’s sporting facial hair, he’s coming home late from parties with beer on his breath, and you can’t get six words out of him at the dinner table, on those rare occasions when he’s even at the dinner table.

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is a film that captures the arc of a young life perhaps better than any previous American movie. Ever. Once in a great while I see a movie I know I’ll be listing as one of my all-time favorites for the rest of my days. So it is with this remarkable, unforgettable, elegant epic that is about one family — and millions of families. It’s a pinpoint-specific and yet universal story.

You may have heard about Linklater’s audacious tightrope walk of an experiment. “Boyhood” was filmed in 39 days over the course of 12 years with the same core cast. The actors playing the young children at the beginning of the film are the same actors playing those characters as adolescents and young adults. The result is a living time capsule so pitch-perfect, the experience of watching it is almost unsettling.

A Texas kid named Ellar Coltrane was cast as Mason, who goes from a typical 7-year-old moppet to a sensitive, brooding, good-hearted college freshman. Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei also grows up before our very eyes, playing Mason’s older sister Samantha, first seen as a precocious brat, much later as a confident young woman.

“Boyhood” is also the story of motherhood. When we meet Patricia Arquette’s Olivia, she’s a single mother in her 20s, near the breaking point as she tries to support her children while their father is off on some selfish adventure in Alaska. Over the next decade-plus, Olivia will find herself, go back to school, experience elevations and plunges in her financial situation, explore new romantic relationships and sometimes struggle to stay connected to her children. Every inch of Arquette’s performance is natural. We believe each step in her character’s climb. It’s nomination-worthy work.

Ethan Hawke makes his eighth appearance in a Linklater film as Mason Sr., who starts off as the clichéd absentee dad with a vintage muscle car and delusional ambitions of becoming a rock star, but evolves into something quite surprising. Sometimes Mason’s full of s--- and sometimes he says just the right things to his children. Sometimes we want to wring his neck and sometimes we’re surprised how much he steps up. It’s one of the best performances of Hawke’s career.

Arquette and Hawke are seasoned pros, so we shouldn’t be surprised they could so readily inhabit their characters once a year for three or four days at a time. The miracle of “Boyhood” is that Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater maintained their characters so well from year to year while they were growing up in real life. There’s a never a moment where you feel either had become self-conscious or reluctant.

There are no title cards or overly dramatic moments announcing the passing of the years. Mason and Samantha just get a little bit older, and the music and the technology change, and suddenly we realize one adult character is now out of the picture completely, while a former fringe character has become an important figure in the lives of these children, at least for a while.

It’s not as if a thousand other movies haven’t explored the themes examined in “Boyhood,” whether it’s the lasting impact of divorce on children, the devastation caused by alcoholism in a family or the heartbreak a teenage boy feels when the love of his life (or so he believes at the time) goes from being fascinated by his every word to being exasperated by his every word. Rarely, though, have so many familiar dramatic touchstones been handled with such grace.

It feels like real life, from the early scenes of Samantha and Mason fighting in the back seat of the car to the later sequences when Samantha’s in college and Mason’s a high schooler visiting her, and they’re nearing that phase where they’re going to be really close friends for their rest of their lives.

There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this project. What if young Coltrane grew up to be a terrible actor? What if Lorelei decided five years ago she didn’t want to be in Dad’s movie any more?

Fortunately for Linklater and for us, it all came together beautifully. “Boyhood” is a unique and special film, and it is the best movie of 2014 so far.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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