The only reason I hesitate to give Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” five stars is that you will be expecting a masterpiece. And a “masterpiece” these days is all too often a film that is trying very hard for that status, weighted with its own self-importance. (Dare I cite “There Will be Blood” or “The Tree of Life” as examples?)

The genius of Linklater is that he doesn’t try to leap the high bar, and perhaps this is not surprising for the Austin, Texas-based director whose first two films were “Slacker” (1991) and “Dazed and Confused” (1993). His genius lies in his simplicity, his directness, his honesty and his looseness.

“Boyhood,” filmed a few days each year over the course of 12 years, tracks the path of one boy, played by Ellar Coltrane, growing up in suburban Texas, starting from 2001. It’s a simple enough premise, and the incidents and events in his life are typical, almost mundane, but the cumulative effect is profound — never has the passage of time on screen seemed so real or so poignant.

Boyhood (6-Sai no Boku ga, Otona ni Naru Made)
Director Richard Linklater
Run Time 165 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing

Newcomer Coltrane plays Mason, a mop-topped 6-year-old living with his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and divorced mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a feckless type who drives a Pontiac GTO, is trying to ingratiate himself with his kids and possibly get back with Olivia. But she’s having none of it — much to the kids’ disappointment, as the men she subsequently gets involved with make horrible stepfathers. (Surviving the trauma of parental chaos to come out relatively whole and strong is a theme Linklater underlines.)

Typical of the film’s subtlety, we never really know why Olivia is so down on Mason Sr., who really loves his kids. We suspect she’s being unreasonable until a much later scene where he lets Mason Jr. down by forgetting a birthday promise glibly made a decade earlier, and then denies he ever made it.

It’s Coltrane’s film, though, and each incident in his character’s life rings true, such as the haircut the other kids relentlessly tease him about; having to feign sexual knowledge to crude-talking older boys; and, of course, a first kiss. Linklater, as is his wont, collaborated with his cast on the direction the story would take, with Coltrane’s own experiences of growing up along with Arquette’s and Hawke’s knowledge of messy divorces all thrown into the mix.

A scene where Mason goes off about our Pavlovian response to every little cellphone alert sounds like a classic Linklater rant — “I just want to try and not live my life through a screen,” Mason insists — but the idea came from Coltrane, a point where the 17-year-old and the 50-year-old were in perfect sync. Coltrane does seem to be a Linklater alter-ego, like Jean-Pierre Leaud was to Francois Truffaut, but what’s amazing is that Linklater saw that spark when casting him at age 6.

“Boyhood” is the sort of small, personal film that Hollywood would never make, but it isn’t so-called art cinema either: This is filmmaking at its most direct and heartfelt.

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