Boyhood ★★★½

Is it fair to ask, “What would we make of the identical story if it had been made conventionally, with two or three different actors playing the lead roles at different ages?” Of course, that’s not what Richard Linklater did; he shot the film in small increments over the course of 12 years, following Mason (Ellar Coltrane)—the child of a struggling single mother (Patricia Arquette) and a sometimes flaky, occasionally absentee father (Ethan Hawke)—from first grade through his high school graduation. And indeed, it is a remarkable experience watching Coltrane—as well as Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, as Mason’s older sister Samantha—grow up over the course of a single 164-minute film, particularly because there was no way of knowing that Coltrane would grow up into a teenager with this much on-screen confidence and charisma. Yet this is also a fundamentally episodic tale of this family’s struggles, and those episodes range from gently insightful moments about the arc of growing up, to made-for-Lifetime overwrought melodrama with hurling of dishes and screaming of threats. As hard as it is to imagine a better way to track, for example, a boy’s steps in sexual awareness from lingerie catalogues to Internet porn to his own first relationships, it’s equally hard to rationalize away some of the terrible scenes involving Mason’s first alcoholic stepfather. Like so many of Linklater’s loose-limbed comedies over the years, when it’s on, Boyhood is really on—smart, clear-eyed and laugh-out-loud funny in a way that never feels like someone’s stopping to deliver a zinger. That’s doesn’t erase the stuff that’s hard to explain away as anything but clumsy, no matter how ambitious the project in which it resides. Recognizing that this kind of crazy idea might never be attempted again isn’t the same as wondering if still couldn’t have been done better.