Richard Linklater’s skill as a filmmaker is not so much how he can innovate within the confines of the American indie scene—be it with rotoscoping or the epic 18-year “Before” trilogy or the mix of documentary and fiction in Bernie—but that he never makes it feel like a gimmick. The same goes for Boyhood, which is being sold to its audience as “film history,” and for good reason. If you missed the story, he began shooting the film 12 years ago with a seven-year-old named Ellar Coltrane, and picked back up with him for a week or so of filming every year to tell a story of adolescence where the characters age naturally before your eyes.
It’s the kind of daring gimmick that’s right up Linklater’s alley—who knows if a seven-year-old will develop into a remotely appealing actor, but he’s always been a director who coaxes incredibly natural work out of his casts, be they amateurs or movie stars. Coltrane is at times moody and sullen, but that’s hardly unusual behavior for a pubescent teenage boy. He’s surrounded by a more energetic supporting cast—Patricia Arquette as his mother, Ethan Hawke as his dad, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as his sister—and events both soapily dramatic and believably mundane for the audience to latch on to.
Boyhood succeeds because it more often than not feels very natural and lived-in, exactly the vibe Linklater is aiming for, and all the more impressive given its two hour 45-minute runtime. This is not an aimless film when it comes to plot—there’s some drama relating to Mason’s parents, who are split up before the film begins, and more gripping stuff relating to future step-parents and the family moving around Texas. The time-jumps are loose and up to the audience to notice (there’s no title screens for each year flashing on screen), largely perceptible through changing hairstyles and the most popular music of the year, which Linklater happily deploys pretty sparingly (if his needle-drops were any less subtle, Boyhood might come off like a VH1 nostalgia special).