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film review

The young Ellar Coltrane (Mason) and Ethan Hawke (Mason Sr.) in Boyhood.Matt Lankes

Richard Linklater's Boyhood, both a fictional drama about growing up and a wonder-rousing cinema experiment, deserves all the accolades it has been receiving since its appearances at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals earlier this year. Presented in 143 scenes shot in 39 days over a dozen years with the same cast, the film explores that permeable border between drama and documentary in a way that evokes recognition, melancholy and joy, while sticking to the mundane experiences of one boy's life.

The subject of Boyhood is played by Texas actor Ellar Coltrane, and we see him travel from the age of six to 18, from a cherubic child, to a pudgy, uncertain adolescent, to a bony, deep-voiced man. His head and body pop and lengthen over the years along with the length and complexity of his sentences. It's like a time-lapse photo of an expanding consciousness.

You could measure Boyhood against some similar projects – François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel film series, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as the same character over four feature films, one short film and 20 years, comes to mind, or Michael Apted's documentary Up! series – but Linklater's film is very much its own hybrid creature. While the dramatic scaffolding is lightly drawn, it becomes apparent that Linklater has organized his material along certain themes, most notably that of the passage of time and the dream life of childhood.

When we first meet Coltrane's character, Mason, his parents are getting a divorce. His father (Ethan Hawke) has gone to Alaska to look for work. His mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), is overwhelmed, stuck in a dead-end job and raising Mason and his attention-demanding older sister, Samantha (the director's energy-charged daughter, Lorelei Linklater). Olivia starts from a position of disappointment, a place where she repeatedly returns.

Time is the subject matter: Mason, tellingly, collects ancient arrowheads and dreams away the school days. His first descent from the world of innocence into experience comes when his mother announces they're moving to Houston, so she can return to school and find a better life for her children. Mason has to leave his house and best friend behind and, before he goes, he sees a dead bird – a small harbinger of death.

Closely tied to this idea of time is the feeling of the vulnerability of childhood experience, how dependent we all are on the choices and behaviours of adults. After the family relocates, Mason Sr. (Hawke) comes to visit. He's a motor-mouthed charmer with boundary issues (he stops by his ex-wife's house when he's expressly been asked not to). He wants Olivia back, but it's obvious that she is wary, that she's been hurt before, and not eager to wait for her husband to grow up.

Mason Sr. really likes to talk – a characteristic of Linklater's characters – offering a kind of running commentary on his own life experiences, trying hard to be the fun alternative to the stress-worn Olivia. By the end of the film, Mason Jr. has grown into a more sensitive version of his father, and another articulate dreamer, mulling about his destiny in the world. That repetition is not just a function of the script but of some inspired casting in finding a kid who grows so persuasively into a moody intellectual. More amazingly, the pudgy little cherub of the early scenes also develops the heavy brow and hollow cheeks of a young Ethan Hawke.

The place where design meets happy accident is one of the film's constant pleasures. The other is the beautifully observed social reality that the actors embody, as they thicken, mature and show the effects of gravity, both physical and emotional. Olivia, who wants to improve herself, forges an upwardly-mobile relationship with a middle-aged psychology professor, Bill (Marco Perella), who turns out to be an overbearing drunk. Among the patterns here, Olivia repeatedly shows bad judgment about men: The irresponsible Mason Sr., the scholarly Bill, and later, a nice-guy Iraq veteran who turns mean, all chafe at their adult responsibilities. Boyhood, it turns out, is a lot about having disappointed older men take their frustrations out on you.

The focus, as in the Truffaut stories, is on the resilience of children, the adaptations and misadaptations when their world can suddenly turn dangerous at the dinner table. The small, intimate touches here are the best: Frightened by his angry stepfather, Mason hides out in a bedroom and obsessively watches his favourite comedy video: A 2007 Funny or Die sketch in which Will Ferrell is terrified by the girl toddler who is his drunken landlady. Pop music and culture moments serve as markers: Lorelei's sassy impersonation of Britney Spears's 2000 hit Oops! … I Did It Again; a 2005 night-time trek to buy the first copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; the Nintendos and iPods and speculation about the future of Star Wars. The more conventional movie coming-of-age moments – an encounter with bullies, high-school graduation, the heartbreak of first love and betrayal (ouch!) are heart-rendingly authentic and free from tidy resolutions.

Linklater has already experimented with time in his Before trilogy with Hawke and Julie Delpy, who play the same characters in three movies over an 18-year period, each film set within a 12-hour time frame. The risk in Boyhood was obviously much greater, though the quasi-documentary approach allows the freedom of not having to tie up all the narrative loose ends.

At one point, Olivia advises an immigrant gardener to go back to school, and he pops up a few years later in a new role, grateful for her advice. But those happy coincidences are as rare as they are in life. Other characters – including Mason and Lorelei's unhappy stepsiblings – simply fall out of the picture, as people sometimes do.

Though photography and cinema have long made special claims for representing reality, in the era of computer-generated imagery and Instagram home snaps we no longer assume that any film is an accurate record of life. Yet Linklater's experiment in temporal sampling reminds us how much film can serve as a gateway to a larger reality. Throughout Boyhood, we recognize one moment after another, and those moments trigger our own sense of the patterns in our lives.

Boyhood opens July 18 in Toronto and in other cities throughout the summer.