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Ellar Coltrane at age 17, in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.Matt Lankes

Life is just as spectacular as it is in the movies, but only very occasionally, and then mostly in hindsight. That's enough to make the rest of it worth living, and it's enough to inspire a body of work, but the long process of waiting for meaning to accumulate rarely makes for exciting drama. The work of American filmmaker Richard Linklater is an exception. The long trail of fleeting moments is a theme in his movies, which somehow collapse the difference between art as it makes life seem and life as it mostly is. Romantic moments come wrapped in the mundane, which his eye redeems.

Boyhood is Linklater's latest and most ambitious project: a movie shot in increments over 12 years, during which a young boy, Mason (played by the eerily gifted Ellar Coltrane), becomes a young adult. We also chart the growth of his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter), and his parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette), who separate before the movie begins: Hawke, the "Fun Dad," slowly becomes responsible, while Arquette goes back to school and grapples with single motherhood.

The movie is an experience of the life cycle in under three hours, and its concept is its story: The project is remarkable, but the plot isn't meant to be. Even when important things happen, time moves on at a steady side scroll, as it does in life. Boyhood is as moving as you've heard it is. It's also horrific, depending on how you look at it, because the life cycle is all there is, as far as we know, and it derives meaning only from itself. Considering this stirs up either a sense of grace or desperation. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, Arquette breaks down as she watches her son pack for college. "I just thought there would be more," she says.

In an earlier scene, Mason asks his father whether there's any real magic in the world. Hawke hedges, making a case for the magic of the non-magical, before conceding that no, technically the world contains no elves. Watching Mason grow up, watching Coltrane grow up, means reliving certain foundational disappointments, and relearning lessons you've forgotten or never quite internalized. (I still haven't wrapped my head around the fact that the adult world isn't static – it feels like a sweater that I failed to grow into.)

But the harshest toke is the cumulative effect of the movie itself. You expect life to have texture, moments and pauses as significant as they're made out to be before "real life" starts (another misconception of youth – continuing into adulthood – being that life starts and stops at points other than birth and death). But big moments only blow up in memory; you might have had a hunch at the time, but ideally you didn't, because the more aware you are of how precious the moment is, the more aware you are of its passing forever. Meaningful things don't happen; they haunt.

Boyhood has most in common with Linklater's Before trilogy, which advances in real time: A 23-year-old American, Jesse (Hawke), meets a French woman, Céline (Julie Delpy), on a train, and the two decide spontaneously to spend a night together in Vienna (Before Sunrise). They reconnect in Paris after nine years, over the course of which Jesse has written a novel about the experience (Before Sunset); and, nine years after that, deal with the trials of marriage and family life (Before Midnight). Like Boyhood, it's a risky concept, one that only Linklater could pull off: He's an excellent listener, with a tenderness for life and a retractable ego, capable of stepping back and letting his movies grow around the people in them. As a result, his work is mostly unhampered by his generational biases: Before Sunrise holds up despite the neo-beatnik romanticism characteristic of Generation X but unfashionable now (hungry, middle-class twentysomethings don't backpack through Europe any more; they do internships). Mason's formative experiences are no less familiar for being mediated by the Internet, or less profound for taking place to the sound of Daft Punk.

The Before trilogy succeeds because Linklater deals in universals, and because it feels true: There really is ecstasy in this life, followed by heartache, followed by tedium, which Linklater doesn't ignore. The series is as much about the irritation and banality that form the substance of a relationship as it is the occasional bliss that inspires one. True romance, like anything else, is a cycle rather than a grand narrative: Before Midnight, the final instalment of a great love story, is essentially about a lover's spat, which is ultimately, touchingly, resolved.

Boyhood is similarly low key. There are no splashy boy-becomes-man moments, and in the end, Mason does nothing more incredible than graduate from high school and leave for college. His mother's relationships – particularly one with an abusive, drunken professor – are sometimes harrowing, but the film moves past them apace; his dad starts a new family, but everyone pretty much accepts this and gets along. These don't feel like plot points so much as things that happen in sequence and culminate in a spectacle of living.

Two things make Boyhood difficult to analyze. One is that it's so completely an experience; the second is that, if you think too hard about that experience, it becomes the awful truth: All of everything leads nowhere except back to the beginning. The same problems arise in new guises, the same lessons are learned and forgotten, kids grow up and (in the sequel, maybe) make new kids. To accept this is, of course, grace. The real world isn't magic, but the consolation, as Hawke's character tries to express, is that the mind is elastic, and internal worlds are infinite. There's no point, but the lesson is that we don't really need one.