I don't write these types of reviews too often, but this is one of them, so, heads up: come December Richard Linklater's Boyhood will still definitely be one of my favorite films of 2014, and maybe of the decade.
You need to know this about Boyhood going in: the star, Ellar Coltrane, was cast in the film in 2002 when he was six years old, and he—along with co-stars Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Linklater's daughter Lorelei—proceeded to shoot the film periodically over the next twelve years, the characters' ages keeping pace roughly with the actors' real ages.
Just stop for a second and think about that: this film was in production for twelve years.
Though people knew about the project, the cast and crew kept the details pretty quiet. (For instance, here's one of the few, typical statements about the film.) So when the movie—a late addition to the slate at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year—was finally screened for an audience, people's minds understandably exploded. This is epically patient filmmaking. It's not something we ever get to see.
Boyhood isn't a documentary, though you might be excused for mistaking it for one (not least because it's been compared to Michael Apted's Up series). It's the same sort of fictional narrative feature film you and I are used to watching, though there isn't a typical plot. In the film's story, a boy named Mason (Coltrane) grows up. He and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their mother (Arquette, whose character's name is simply "Mom"). Mom and Dad (Hawke) got divorced before the movie started.
Both parents date other people and sometimes marry them. They get jobs and lose them. Mason goes to school and fights with his sister. He moves houses and has to make new friends. He gets into fistfights. He rides his bike. He watches Star Wars. He gets older. And eventually, he graduates from high school and goes to college.
That's all very typical stuff—a childhood that will remind a lot of viewers of their own: sometimes idyllic, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes confusing. We mostly see things from Mason's perspective, which means he is sometimes more preoccupied with and aware of whatever is going on in his personal existence than with the bigger, more serious issues that the adults are dealing with. And some of them are pretty serious, like spousal abuse and alcoholism and not knowing where money is going to come from. But the film stays lighthearted; things, after all, eventually seem to turn out okay. Life has a way of going on. We have a way of becoming who we will be.
One of the loveliest things about Boyhood is how much of it makes those long-forgotten strings of childhood vibrate within you. It reminds you of what it was like to be a kid. Friends (and step-siblings) float in and out of Mason's life; remember when you were best friends with the kids on your block, and then you moved and that was it—you never really saw them again? If you'd forgotten what that was like, you'll remember it, along with long afternoons of boredom, frustration with rules that seem dumb, and the elation of being out on your own with your friends at night. Mix that kind of nostalgia with a now-adult perspective, and it takes on a new dimension.