If you approach Richard Linklater's bold cinematic experiment "Boyhood" with the proper frame of mind, you will walk out of the theater having experienced an epic journey, one every bit as rich and moving as the entire "Harry Potter" series, except in one installment and without the wizards, goblins, ghosts and fire-breathing dragons.
Actually, "Boyhood" has a dragon or two, but they are of the human variety and they do not breathe fire, but spew poison through their words and attitudes.
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"Boyhood"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, Evie Thompson, Brad Hawkins
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Other: An IFC Films release. Rated R for language, drug use, sexual references. 165 minutes
By now, most film fans might know that Linklater shot "Boyhood" off and on for 39 days from 2002 to 2013, using the same actors -- Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and newcomer Ellar Coltrane -- portraying members of a modern American family as they travel the odyssey of their own lives.
Yes, this sounds like a promotional gimmick.
Why didn't Linklater save time and simply do what other filmmakers do: hire different actors to play the same characters at different stages of life?
To witness "Boyhood" is to understand.
From scene to scene, "Boyhood" covers familiar territory in the domestic drama genre: an immature divorced dad desperately trying to connect with his estranged children; a single mother struggling to be a good mom while holding down the financial fort; a confused kid growing up and coping with adolescence, drugs, sex, self-esteem and a sense of identity.
Yet, when we see these 39 days of filming stitched into an amazingly coherent single movie, each scene bursts with small, miraculous surprises that might go unnoticed in most mainstream movies: how tall the characters suddenly become; shifting hairstyles, evolving technologies in computers and cellphones; and the biggest small change of all, a manly voice abruptly emanating from young Coltrane's instantly adolescent body.
"Boyhood" opens with a close-up on Coltrane as Mason, Jr., a 6-year-old looking up at the sky, perhaps wondering where his life and this unique film experience will take him.
Arquette and Hawke play his divorced parents, Olivia and Mason Sr. We never know exactly why their marriage went belly-up, except that things happened too fast.
Olivia tries not to make her ex-husband the villain in their lives. That's tough because Mason Sr. isn't so nice, and we gather a sense that his immaturity (as evidenced by his super cool adolescent GTO sports car) played a big part in the breakup.
Clearly, he wants to stay connected to the kids, Mason Jr. and his older sister Samantha (the director's daughter Lorelei Linklater), but wants no actual responsibility for them. He bribes them with presents and wants to be their buddy. Meanwhile, Mom gets stuck with all the problems and few of the rewards.
"Boyhood" progresses, but Mason Sr. barely does. Olivia, meanwhile, moves forward, completing her college degree and marrying a smart, cordial college professor whose nasty streak and drinking problems only reveal themselves later.
Olivia is a great character, a fighter and survivor played by Arquette with truth, clarity and conviction. Just when you think Mason Sr. will be the story's easy baddie, he shifts, revealing a good heart under the ego and a willingness to share his life with his kids and ex-wife.
Of course, this is really Coltrane's movie and Linklater got lucky casting this actor who literally grows into his role, going from a cute and clueless kid into a lanky young man dealing with peer pressures, college, women, his future and broken promises from his disappointing dad.
"Boyhood" is an astonishing achievement, not just because of the risk Linklater took in depending on his cast to not fall apart, desert or go prima dona during 12 years of shooting, but because it captures the essence of an American family with an accuracy and intimacy unseen in a feature film before.
Other directors have accomplished similar projects. Michael Apted's celebrated documentary "Up" series checked in on the lives of children every seven years. French filmmaker Francois Truffaut traced his own life through alter-ego Antoine Doinel in five features.
"Boyhood" ranks with these, a work of personal cinema built around universal truths.
And in its own nuanced way, Linklater's movie works its own form of magic. Without Harry Potter's wand.