'Time's going by," the grandmother in Richard Linklater's Boyhood observes, almost casually, but with the certitude of experience on her side. And indeed, this singular, soulful film is about just that: time going by.

Shot over the course of 12 years - a few weeks every year, beginning in 2002, its central cast reuniting to portray the respective members of a middle-class Texas family - Boyhood does something no other film has done before: It tracks a child's forward motion, from grade school to college dorm, from dreamy-eyed kid to curious, gangly teen, in one progressing flow. Mason Evans Jr. - the boy played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane - is 6 when the film starts, and 18 when it ends.

The scope of the film is vast, but intimate, too. We come to know "MJ," and his struggling single mom, Olivia (a terrific Patricia Arquette), his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker's daughter), and his dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), like they are our own.

Linklater's concept is as simple as it is bold - and it opens a door into a new kind of storytelling, where the passage of time propels, and compels, the narrative. Where the faces and features of the actors - children and adults - change; where for once in a movie, time is real.  

In Boyhood, there are few "big moments," no Hollywood epiphanies with a neon-limned hand pointing us to their significance. Instead, Mason scrawls graffiti on a wall, asks Dad why he can't use bumpers in the bowling alley ("Life doesn't give you bumpers," Hawke responds - what a dad thing to say!), plays video games, makes friends, forgets homework, fights with his sister, ogles a Victoria's Secret catalog, tries beer, smokes pot, falls for a girl. Carefully observed, this stream of small moments takes on a kind of quiet, metaphoric power.

But there are wrenching scenes, too: Mason's stepdad (Marco Perella), a college professor, starts boozing ferociously, and raining abuse on his kids, his stepkids, their mother. But Olivia is nothing if not resilient : Somehow, while raising a son and daughter and barely making ends meet, she goes back to college, gets a degree and then another, and becomes a professor herself.

Hawke's Mason Sr. evolves, too, from a mostly absentee stoner dad to someone who insists that his kids talk to him straight and true.  By the time Mason is finishing up high school, where he's taken to photography with a passion, his father has remarried, has a baby, and traded his beloved GTO for a minivan.

Boyhood clocks in at a little under three hours, but it doesn't feel long for a minute. In what amounts to a small chunk of a day, we get to see - and feel, and fall into - a huge part of these people's lives.

Is it dumb to say, "Wow?"

I don't care. Wow.



Boyhood  **** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Richard Linklater. With Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 46 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, drugs, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.