The indie hit is the frontrunner to score the top prize at the Oscars. But if it triumphs, it may be the most unusual film ever to win, Owen Gleiberman says.

I first saw Richard Linklater's Boyhood at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and if you had predicted back then that the film would now be the universally acknowledged front-runner in the race for the best picture Oscar, I would have calmly told you that you were insane. Not that I thought the film was anything less than marvelous. Linklater's uniquely entrancing coming-of-age epic fully captures, not just in each scene but in its very structure, the wide-eyed, exploratory rhythm and spirit of youth. When you're growing up, even the smallest things that happen to you feel unprecedented, so every moment becomes a kind of adventure. Boyhood taps into the ethereal essence of that ‘haven't-been-there/haven't-done-that’ experience. That's the film's originality, and its understated magic.

Yet that's also why it's the most unusual movie ever to have had a solid shot at Oscar glory. At its heart, of course, is the hook that did so much to make it the indie crossover hit of the summer: the fact that it lets us watch the actor Ellar Coltrane literally grow up on camera, over the course of 12 years. On a basic level, you could argue that there's a PT Barnum aspect to the way that Boyhood says to its audience, "Step right up, folks! See the movie in which a young actor matures, right before your eyes, into a man!" There's no denying that hook helped to sell a lot of tickets. Yet if that were all there is to Boyhood, the film wouldn't be half as extraordinary – or as stubbornly idiosyncratic – as it is.

The film's biggest achievement is the way that it gently dissolves the notion of a three-act structure. Boyhood is and isn't a story; it's more like a three-hour scrapbook of memory in motion. The 'plot' comes down to this: Mason (Coltrane), a cute, quiet, rather lackadaisical Texas kid, gets older year by year, and a bunch of things happen to him. He never meets a girl, or a friend, who travels through much of the movie with him. When his mother (Patricia Arquette) marries a mean drunk, the stepfather's violent shadow doesn't hang over things; she gets rid of him and that's it – he's gone. In high school, Mason's photography teacher tells him off for not following through on his talent with discipline, but we aren't given a character-building follow-up scene in which Mason learns to be more dedicated. The film just assumes that he'll find the right path – and that his lack of discipline may, in fact, be inherent in what's most creative about him: his tendency to get lost in his dreams. Daydreaming figures big in the Linklater cosmos. He made the greatest movie to look back at the 1970s, Dazed and Confused, and part of what he's beholden to about that era is the allure of its aimless, ‘let’s hang out’ spirit.

Mellow gold

Robert Altman, the most revolutionary filmmaker of the '70s, is the greatest influence on Linklater. The loose, flowing vibe of Altman's largely plotless movies hovers over both Dazed and Confused and Boyhood. But this quality is also why Altman's films didn't win Oscars. They were sometimes nominated, but a movie like his masterpiece, Nashville, was far too unconventional for Academy voters in 1975.

What has changed? The last 25 years of American independent film have relaxed Oscar voters’ tastes. More than that, though, the membership of the Academy is also in the midst of a major demographic shift. Though often still talked about as if it were the same eternal collection of aging studio fuddy-duddies, there are more Gen-Xers in the organisation now, and their tastes tend to be more adventurous. That's one reason why the entire slate of Oscar nominees this year is dominated by independent films that didn't, in the scheme of things, make a lot of money, like Boyhood ($25 million), Birdman ($35 million), The Grand Budapest Hotel ($59 million) and Whiplash ($9 million). Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, the kind of red-blooded smash-hit that might have had a major shot at Oscar glory 15 years ago, now looks like the odd blockbuster out.

Yet there's another reason why a movie like Boyhood is now mainstream enough to win best picture, and that relates to the secret ingredient in its laidback aesthetic: in an almost subliminal way, the film draws on the meticulous sprawl of series television, which is coming to be thought of as the defining popular art of our time. Mason's journey is rambling and decentralised – a series of 'moments', as he puts it in the sublime final scene. That, the film says, is what life really is. But that's also what a multi-episode, multi-season television series is: a set of characters who experience events, some small and some big, but rarely any that overwhelm the flow of the characters’ lives. Boyhood is a three-hour series of moments, but another way of looking at it is as a series of episodes that add up to form some kind of whole. If it does take best picture, Boyhood will feel like the first true Oscar winner of the 21st Century, and maybe that's because it represents the merging of mediums: movies absorbing the spirit of television in the first era when that spirit has trumped the movies.

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