For me, the most interesting thing about the film isn't the way it was made or the universal acclaim it has received. Rather, it's the way it navigates between documentary and drama. While Linklater's dialogue may feel extempore to some, for me there's no doubt that his scripts are quite tight. Even if Mason's character tracks the life of the actor playing him quite closely, the shorts filmed each year have a shape and purpose imposed by the filmmaker. The point is: although Boyhood sometimes suggests the looseness of documentary, actually this is deceptive. An authorial voice is present throughout.
So what is the film trying to say? While many reviewers have warmed to the universal bildungsroman scope of the film, what struck me was how particular Mason's story is. The protagonist is not an everyman. In fact, Linklater has him grow up to be a typical Linklaterian hero – almost an Ethan Hawke Mini-Me. And his development is presented with recourse to very American tropes and symbols (aspiration, independence, the possibility of the open road). My girlfriend is Japanese, and when discussing the film with her Japanese colleague, she told me that the scenarios portrayed felt foreign to her. This made it difficult to fully identify with the characters and the experiences they go through, and more broadly, to embrace the film in the way that it has been by Anglo-Saxon critics and audiences.
This chimes with my own reaction to the film. Mason isn't perfect, but he's intelligent, creative and has amazing hair. He grows up in a white, middle class family, has cute girlfriends, and goes to university. This is not an universal experience (trust me – I share more than a bit with Mason's character). Linklater makes some concessions on this by shoehorning a sub-plot about a Latino builder profiting from the American Dream, which I found very moving despite its clumsiness. That doesn't detract from the overwhelming feeling that Linklater is whispering consoling stories to an audience that looks very much like him.
The original title of the film was supposed to be 12 Years – it was changed last minute because the recently released 12 Years a Slave would have caused confusion (or a tougher job for the marketing department). But the working title at least emphasised that this was a particular story portrayed in a particular way – one kid from one place filmed once a year. Having Boyhood as the title suggests that the story somehow reaches beyond that. My ambivalence toward the film comes down to doubts about how much it really does so.