Boyhood ***1/2

 Is it worth $10? Yes

“Boyhood” was shot in 39 days, which is modest by Hollywood standards. What isn’t modest is the fact that those 39 days were over the course of 12 years, which allows writer/director Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise”) to show the growth of a six year-old into an 18 year-old college freshman in the span of 166 minutes. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

When we first meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) he’s a sweet six-year old who often fights with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter). Their parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) are divorced, and mom is essentially raising them on her own with their father only around for an occasional weekend. Nothing particularly interesting here.

Every 10-15 minutes, though, the story jumps to the next year in their lives, and the results are endlessly fascinating. Mom goes back to school, marries her professor (Marco Perella) and continues to struggle financially, Dad becomes more prominent in their lives when he settles down near them in Texas, and Mason faces the highs and lows of growing pains. Nothing feels forced – everything seems to unfold naturally, just like life, in varied and unpredictable ways.

The scope of the gimmick alone, however, does not make the movie good. Rather, the real quality shines through in the evolution of the story and Linklater’s ability to capture the essential moments of growing up – Mason’s first day in a new school, awkward crushes, first kisses, drinking, etc. – in a way that feels wholeheartedly real. Coltrane was an inexperienced actor when the project began but took lessons in between filming sessions, and the results show, as he’s able to handle the teen angst with precision.

Linklater reminds us the film was literally 12 years in the making by throwing in random cultural references. Gameboys, Wii and iPhones are used, the Bush/Kerry and later Obama elections are discussed, and the excitement surrounding the July 2005 release of the “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” novel is chronicled. These cultural elements ground the film in actual events, which has the effect of making the story feel realistic because we the viewers remember living through those times too.

At a time when studios rambunctiously shove the latest fad down our throats, IFC Films deserves credit for the patience it gave Linklater to execute the project. Every summer for a weekend or so the cast and crew reunited with $200,000 of the studio’s money to create the next chapter in Mason’s life, with even Linklater (let alone IFC) not knowing how the story would evolve from one year to the next. (Linklater said he’d check in with Coltrane prior to shooting to see where his life is, then loosely base Mason’s evolution on Coltrane’s life.) “Boyhood” serves as a welcome reminder that talented filmmakers can achieve startling results when given a bit of faith.

If there’s a flaw to nitpick it’s that the story doesn’t have a strong narrative drive, instead settling to be a series of vignettes of adolescence rather than having a definitive three-act structure. This is easily forgivable in that the scope of the project and its novelty make the most impact by film’s end, effectively giving us plenty to marvel at by the time the credits roll.

Watching someone literally grow up before your eyes is a rare and unique experience that only something like the movies can provide. No single part of “Boyhood” will amaze you, but the totality of it will blow you away.

Did you know?

Divorce figures heavily in the story; in real life Coltrane’s parents divorced during the course of shooting, making the movie feel “very familiar,” Coltrane said.

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