It's fun, kind of, to finally catch up with a major talking point movie after it's been out awhile, and to have seen its reception shift around a bit. With >Boyhood, we've seen the initial near-religious rapture of its Sundance reviews give way, bit by bit, to a backlash, and now we're far enough along that anti-backlash has already started. Though it's telling that the "backlash", such as it was, has been more along the lines "you do understand that this isn't actually the best movie in the history of cinema, right?" than "this movie is bad". Or even "this movie is less than pretty terrific in a lot of ways".

I don't know where that puts this review along the spectrum, though I will say that not only is not actually the best movie in the history of cinema, I don't think that it's actually the best movie in the career of director Richard Linklater - for all its sublimity in recreating the pace and texture of a human life over a span of 12 years, I can't say that I feel liked I learned quite as much about human beings or the limits of cinema as I have from the Before... series.* Then again, "not as good as Before Sunset" leaves plenty of wiggle-room for plenty of all-time masterpieces, and Boyhood certainly puts in a strong argument for itself on that front. If nothing else, it's entirely fair to consider it one of the most ambitious productions in the history of narrative cinema, so much so that it becomes difficult to separate the production from the film's actual content. Though given that the content and the production are very nearly the same thing in this case, it's no real sin to conflate the two.

What that thing is, of course, is a boy growing up in Texas over twelve years. Linklater assembled a cast in the summer of 2002, with seven-year-old Ellar Coltrane taking the role of Mason Evans, Jr, and ever year until 2013, they'd get together to film a few scenes taking place over a handful of days or less in Mason's life, ending with his first day at college. The result is a 165-minute collection of moments in time that track Mason's growth, Coltrane's, Linklater's, and even to a certain extent, America's: not the least of the film's pleasures is in watching how politics and pop culture developed over those 12 years, either for the kick of nostalgia it provides, or simply for the sociology of it.

And, moreover, it's just about the fastest 165 minutes I can recall, with its fragmentary construction (as much like 12 short films that flow into each other without pause as it is a single unified whole) meaning that it never spends too much time in any one place, and with the performances so exquisitely minimal and natural that just watching the characters do nothing at all is totally absorbing. Coltrane may or may not be a natural actor - his work includes a lot of shuffling and looking down and mumbling, in ways that are absolutely to the benefit of his character but don't suggest whether he needs to be hunting for a chance to play Macbeth anytime soon - but he inhabits the role in a most relaxing, wonderfully unfussy way, and he's still only giving the film it's third-greatest performance at best: as his parents, divorced before the film starts, Before... veteran Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are absurdly excellent. It is a film that is resolutely fixated on Mason's life and the events that Mason perceives, as he perceives them, so even though we spend the same 12 years watching Arquette and Hawke develop their characters (mostly: Hawke certainly doesn't show up for every year, and I'm not absolutely certain that Arquette does), we aren't explicitly allowed inside them, like we are with him. That leaves it entirely up to the performers to give depth and inner life to the characters, and one of the biggest joys of Boyhood is how fully they do so: it's never exactly clear what goes in on Mom & Dad's lives when they're not tending to the immediate, Mason-related matters that we see onscreen, but it's clear that something does; the sense of unspoken history that percolates through their work is miraculous. Arquette especially: her performance here is absolutely one of the best I've seen in the current decade, playing a harried single mother prone to making terrible life choices about men, and letting us see the flaws and strengths in her character without begging for sympathy or making easy choices. She has two separate scenes in the 2013 material where I just about broke watching her: the "my younger child is going to college" breakdown, obviously, but just because something is obvious doesn't mean that it can't be complex and unexpected in how it plays out; and her response to Hawke's clumsy appreciation for how good of a job she did raising their kids, which is at once surprised, grateful, and mostly irritated that the parent who got to play Fun Dad You See Every Other Weekend would condescend to her - the way she holds her body back from him, almost shocked, is peerless whole-body acting.

But for all that his parents are miraculous creations of acting and storytelling, Boyhood is Mason's film, and it is a beautiful one. The flowing chronology of the movie (at times the only way that the film flags a new year's arrival is through Mason's hair) and the mixture of Major Scenes and the most banal kind of everyday experiences don't add up to a "story" in any classical sense. It moves something like a memory, recalling events but not necessarily their context, recalling the beginning and endpoints of an event but not the middle. But as the characters and actors live it, and we watch it, it's happening in real time, giving it a very different feeling than that of a memoir. It's a very present-tense movie, always most interested in what's happening right now, rather than what's going to come, or what's already been; it is the perfect analogue for the mind of a child and teenager, in that regard.

All in all a truly great experience: what holds it back from instant canonisation for me are mostly an accumulation of bothersome details or flat points, like some of the rockier performances: Linklater's own daughter Lorelei, in addition to looking nothing like the biological offspring of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, grew disinterested in the project for a bit in the middle, and her performance (already one of the film's weakest) bottoms out at the same time; and there are performers not as good as the main trio at keeping track of their characters year by year (there's been plenty of chatter about how the brief intrusion of a traditional dramatic situation in the mother's brief, horrible marriage to an alcoholic interferes with the rest of the movie; I don't think it does that at all, and in fact I believe that structurally, it's worked into the film with a lot of intelligence for how life is punctuated by That Big Event that seems to color memory for years before and afterward. But Marco Perella's performance as the new husband is wildly inconsistent and veers near to camp towards his final scenes, and I think that damages the subplot more than anything).

I was also horribly let down by the ending: 2013 goes on rather a great deal longer than any other year, giving the impression that Linklater and editor Sandra Adair had a hard time saying goodbye to their material, and it eventually takes us through the entirety of Mason's first day at college. And that's simply not the story that Boyhood has been telling, at any point. It's about the present of childhood and adolescence, not the future possibility of young adulthood, and the final scenes try to force it into an entirely different shape (though at least it allows the film's last two shots to echo its first two shots). It's not film-breaking, by any means; but it's also the only part of the movie that I found myself wondering why I was supposed to care about what I was watching.

Still and all, the thing as a whole is an incredible, almost unparalleled achievement: by virtue of being self-contained, it's arguably more impressive than the Before... films - and it's kind of astounding to think of the scope of Linklater's ambition when noticing that Boyhood started shooting prior to Before Sunset - and as a work of fiction, it demanded a level of advance planning that the Up documentary series, which can simply allow life to happen as it will, doesn't. It's possible to watch the shifts in the filmmaker's technique over the years, as he moved from School of Rock to Fast Food Nation to Me and Orson Welles to Bernie, and yet Boyhood feels entirely of a piece within itself: there's no sense of the highs and lows he was hitting at the same time (and boy, is Me and Orson Welles ever a low). If the film feels incomplete, it's only in that 165 minutes ends up feeling not nearly enough time spent with these people: the fake human lives depicted in the film are so nuanced, and one becomes so invested in watching those lives grow and evolve that watching the film is less a matter of observing characters than spending time with friends.

Fingers crossed for Manhood in 2026.

*As hope springs eternal, I refuse to refer to it merely as the Before... "trilogy".