Unless you're willfully uninterested in film, you know about Boyhood's audacious gimmick already. Richard Linklater filmed a movie in two-week increments over 12 years, tracking a boy's life from age 6 to 18. The boy in question is named Mason, and he's played by Ellar Coltrane. We watch Mason—and Coltrane—become a man over the span of nearly three hours. You've read (or at least skimmed) articles about what an incredible achievement Boyhood is on a technical level, and you've probably seen interviews with Linklater and costars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette about the incredibly intricate logistics that went into producing a film with a decade-plus production schedule. This is a big deal. Linklater's blockbuster-level special effect is time itself, and the fact that he was able to pull the movie off at all is some kind of filmmaking miracle.
Curiosity is natural: The first time you watch Boyhood, it takes a while to put the gimmick out of your head, to stop picturing Linklater running around behind the scenes, struggling to encourage his film to organically grow to encompass both Coltrane's development and the million little ways the world changes in a year. Boyhood does drop in small references to the time in which each segment was filmed—usually a pop song and a political reference—but it's not interested in being a retro-fest. It's interested, mainly, in the things that last; Hawke delivers a surprisingly moving monologue about the importance of the White Album, for instance, and a lecture from a photography teacher about responsibility quietly insinuates itself into the film's center and pulses meaning out to every last frame.
Now that we're done gawking at all the behind-the-scenes chronological wizardry, it's time to talk about the fact that Boyhood is much more than the sum of its parts. The thing that keeps Boyhood at any time from running off the rails is its outright defiance of Big Moments. This isn't the usual coming-of-age laundry list of firsts, and it's certainly not a superhero origin story with an obvious "before" and "after." We don't see a Chekhov's gun where Mason is a 7-year-old boy that fires 10 years later. There are no gunshots. Hell, there are very few confrontations.
When the film opens, Mason's parents (Arquette and Hawke) are divorced, and they're not happily divorced, either. You can tell that there was some ugliness, but there's no screaming and no exposition. We learn about their marriage from the size and the shape of the hole it left in their lives, in the same way that we watch the person Mason becomes by considering the 50 weeks a year that we don't see, the chasms of negative space between the 12 discrete chapters that make up the film. As the father, Hawke shows up occasionally and tries to impart some sort of wisdom to his kids (Lorelei Linklater plays Mason's sister, but the role is disappointingly minor; one hopes that somewhere, some industrious filmmaker is working on Girlhood even as you read this), but it's clear that he doesn't have a clue how to live his own life.
Arquette's character keeps stumbling from man to man, trying on different personas to suit each new relationship, even as the crushing burden of day-to-day care of the kids grinds her down. For a long time, you barely notice her because you're seeing the world through Mason's eyes, and the way he worships his father doesn't allow much sunlight for his mother. But between Arquette's quiet portrayal and the subtle arc of Linklater's improvised storytelling, a miracle happens. At around the same time you realize everyone in the film has taken her for granted, you also realize that Arquette has somehow pulled off one of the greatest heists of all time: She quietly constructed the complex main character of a film in the background, while all of our eyes were pasted on the boy in the foreground.