At a time when directors are transporting us to unseen fantasy realms and sci-fi galaxies, Richard Linklater is doing the exact opposite; his films are about as real as can be, populated with characters and events that feel identifiable and painfully honest. With Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, he created one of the greatest movie love stories. An eighteen year trilogy, each film had us checking in with the characters of Jesse and Celine, nine years after their previous outing. It was ambitious filmmaking coupled with great performances and naturalistic direction. Even more ambitious is his newest film, Boyhood. Shot intermittently from May 2002 to October 2013, the film chronicles the life of a young boy named Mason. It’s a project that’s never been tackled before and it’s nothing short of incredible to watch Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, grow up onscreen before us. Not only does Boyhood have one of the best production stories of recent years, but it’s nothing short of an incredible film and it will surely rank as one of the very best that 2014 has to offer.

Mason begins the film as a six year old boy, living with his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their mother (Patricia Arquette). Their parents are no longer together and his father (Ethan Hawke) is trying to find work in Alaska. Just like most children his age, Mason is an innocent, spending the majority of his time daydreaming or playing with toys and video games. As he grows older, we watch his interests change. He eventually grows into a young man who takes a heavy interest in art and photography. Based on the events that he experiences throughout his childhood, we can absolutely see how he turns out this way. The events that we experience shape us into the person that we are and Mason’s arc clearly showcases this.

Linklater avoids showing us the typical moments that tend to make up a coming of age film and opts to show life through the most realistic of eyes. We don’t see Mason’s first kiss, or his prom; instead, we see him on the most ordinary of days. Instead of showing us Mason’s graduation, the film skips over that event and shows Mason on his way home from the graduation and the time that he spends with his family afterwards. Instead of showing us the moment that Mason breaks up with his serious girlfriend, we see the aftermath of the breakup and how Mason is trying to cope with his sadness. By showing life on the more ordinary days, Linklater chooses realism over plot and excitement. We may not see a lot of things happen to Mason, but sometimes it’s the ordinary days that end up having the greatest impact on us. The only time that Linklater breaks this rule is when we see Mason and his mother dealing with an abusive stepfather. It’s the only overly dramatic moment in the entire film, but it works because Linklater doesn’t rely on moments like these as a crutch. This subplot isn’t put into the film to create unnecessary drama, but to show the difficulty that this family had to go through together.

While Mason’s arc is the most prominent in the film, the arcs of his mother and father are equally impressive. His mother starts the film as a single parent, struggling to raise two kids and live a life of her own. She goes back to school, hoping that an education will lead to more income and a better life for her children. But things don’t always work out this way; we watch her go through two husbands, one of them abusive, both of them alcoholics. By the end of the film, she’s living alone in a tiny apartment, wondering what she has left. Her final scene is truly heartbreaking and Arquette is fantastic in the role. Mason’s father begins the film as a dad who isn’t able to spend the time with his kids that he should. It’s clear that he loves them, but it initially looks like he’s going to be a father who flakes out on his children by the end of the film. But, surprisingly, he turns into a great father, spending as much time with Mason and Samantha as he possibly can. It’s great to watch him transform from a man who may have started a family too early, into a man who can proudly call himself a great dad. Ethan Hawke is a frequent collaborator with Linklater and he’s warmhearted, kind and inspiring as Mason’s dad.

Never before has a film so expertly captured what it’s like to live in the 21st century. Everything from the clothes, to the hairstyles, to the vernacular feels authentic with the time period because each scene was filmed in its respective year between 2002 and 2013. It’s incredible to watch how the technology changes from the beginning to the end of the film and the toys and gadgets that Mason and his friends play with will surely create nostalgia for anyone who has lived through this time period. The music also begins to grow more modern as the film progresses, showing us what was popular to listen to throughout each year. Timestamps are never given to explicitly explain what year each scene takes place; viewers will have to figure out when they are based on clues, such as the mention of The Dark Knight or the Obama/McCain election. Decades from now, people will look back on this film as an authentic snapshot of life in the early 21st century.

As Mason begins his first year of college at the end of the film, it would be easy to say that he’s beginning a new chapter of his life, but this would be missing one of the major points of the film. Life isn’t composed of chapters; it’s a series of never ending moments and it’s up to us to make the most of them. The amount of things that could have gone wrong with Linklater’s ambitious project are endless, but somehow everything came together to create a true piece of art that is as beautiful and moving as any motion picture can be. Linklater’s naturalistic direction keeps things poetically simple and eleven years of footage leads to an ending that is breathtaking in how it says so much by saying so little. This is surely one of the most realistic films ever made, but it’s also one of the most magical. I’ve never seen anything quite like Boyhood.

Boyhood receives 4/4