By shooting this film over 12 years, writer-director Richard Linklater is able to explore family dynamics in an intensely involving way that's never been seen on-screen before. Watching the film is such an immersive experience that it's impossible not to be moved as the characters grow up before our eyes. But this isn't a gimmicky drama; it's a masterwork of writing, directing, editing and acting.

The story opens in as a single mother (Patricia Arquette) makes the difficult decision to take her young children Samantha and Mason (Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane) back to Houston to live near her mother (Libby Villari) so she can go to university. Eventually the kids' absent father (Ethan Hawke) arrives for a visit, and over the following years both parents do their best to raise the kids on alternating weekends. Step-parents (Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins and Tamara Jolaine) come and go, while the children grow into young adults. Samantha leaves for college, and Mason discovers a talent for photography, which will shape his future. And he also has a first experience with love before graduating from high school and facing the world on his own.

As the title suggests, the film centres on Mason, and the remarkable Coltrane ages from 6 to 18 over the course of the story. Watching him grow up physically is sometimes startling, but it's his emotional process that makes the film a true classic, mainly because his inner development is pretty much the only plot the movie has. And it's utterly riveting: over two hours and 45 minutes, there isn't a single dull moment. This family shifts and changes, going through rhythms of playfulness, private jokes, dark emotion and deep pain. They also offer a running commentary on 12 years of American history, discussing politics and other issues while making major decisions about their own lives.

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