Richard Linklater

With: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette

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Runtime: 166 minutes

IN Jim Carrey's The Truman Show, that cheery yet savage 2008 satire on the reality TV era, a fictional boy was followed by cameras from birth to adulthood. In Richard Linklater's breathtaking drama Boyhood, a real individual takes a similar path. This time, however, there is only love in the air.

Watching the young actor Ellar Coltrane go from ages six to 18 will be a heartbreaker not just for parents feeling time going by all too quickly, but for anyone who has done the same hard, crazy, joyful yards as his character, Mason.

Yet nothing spectacular occurs in Linklater's 166-minute film. In places it is wilfully, almost shockingly, workaday. But in its own quiet way, and save for the odd, overly heavy touch on the emotional tiller, Boyhood is as startling and as beautiful a piece of cinema as you are likely to see this year.

Linklater, the director of the Before trilogy, has long been fascinated by time's passing. Here, the months and years are charted not with pencil marks on a door frame, but via Harry Potter, Apple Macs, and other symbols of the modern era. Behold the seven ages of Harry Potter as Mason goes from first encountering the boy wizard through a bedtime story, through to queueing at a bookshop for a midnight release of the latest instalment. Observe the epochs of Mac as Mason starts the film with a fat-backed computer and ends it with a FaceTime conversation with his dad (played by Ethan Hawke).

Fascinating as this might be for cultural historians in the future, it is not half as enthralling as watching Mason age, or, indeed, as intriguing as Linklater's idea of keeping the same cast throughout. It is not just Mason who grows older. It is his sister, Samantha (played by Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei), his dad and his mum (Patricia Arquette). Of the bunch, Hawke ages sickeningly well. He either has an entire national portrait gallery in his attic to rival Edinburgh's, or terrific genes.

Though the focus is on Mason, his closest family also get a look-in. Their story is, after all, his story too. So we learn that the mother has chronically bad taste in men and that the father is a Peter Pan who has to be dragged into adulthood and responsibility. We learn also that Miss Linklater is a precociously fine actor who comes close to stealing the picture at times.

The film is long, but it is a triumph for writer-director Linklater and his cast that one is never tempted to look watch-wards. He sweeps through the years confidently, with leaps in time handled smoothly. One minute, for example, we are meeting mother's new boyfriend for the first time. The next a front door opens and the couple are back from honeymoon.

Crucially, Linklater also finds time to stop and smell the roses, picking up on those moments, some huge at the time, others seemingly inconsequential, that can make (or break) a childhood. There is plenty of time for daftness too, including inquiries about whether elves exist, or pinching electoral banners for McCain in the 2008 election. And yes, there is a conversation about contraception that is just as toe-curling as you remember.

It helps in generating Linklater's seductively easy-osey vibe that the sun shines all the time, that the mother and father are good, liberal, not wealthy but not poverty stricken, Americans. What happens to Mason in life, though some of it is distressing, is not a patch on the ordeals some youngsters face. Similarly, some of the lessons drawn, particularly towards the end, have an ever-so-slight whiff of the greetings card about them, as when one character opines that "We're all just winging it".

The moral of Linklater's story is the keys to a good start in life are to have a generous heart, a family who loves you, and to apply oneself; the rest will sort itself out one way or another. A simple enough plan (try achieving it, though), but there is no mistaking how heartfelt this piece is from Linklater, or how special are the performances, especially from Coltrane. One to cherish.