Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.

A lot can go wrong when you film a movie on and off for more than 12 years. Cast members can die; the director can lose his drive and quit, etc.

However, everything turned out just fine with Boyhood, writer-director Richard Linklater’s amazing cinematic undertaking. It doesn’t feel like experimental or stunt filmmaking; it’s just a great-looking, terrifically acted, tremendously moving film made progressively over 12 years.

It’s an amazing thing to see young Mason (Ellar Coltrane, who we first see to the joyous strains of Coldplay’s “Yellow”) go from a wide-eyed 5-year-old boy staring at the sky to an 18-year-old college kid dealing with girls and big life decisions. It’s equally fascinating to watch Ethan Hawke, playing Mason’s father, go from Training Day Hawke to The Purge Hawke within the course of two hours and 45 minutes.

We also see Linklater’s daughter Lorelei playing Samantha, Mason’s sister; and Patricia Arquette as Mom, putting in her best performance since she graced the screen as Alabama in True Romance. All of the performers go through beautiful and awkward stages, aging before our eyes without the aid of special-effects makeup.

All of this would mean relatively little if it were at the service of a bad screenplay. Happily, Linklater has delivered the sort of observational, honest, enlightening screenplay that made his School of Rock and Dazed and Confused such endearing films. While there have been great films about adolescence, family turmoil and growing up (with Linklater being the architect of a few), never before has one film captured the essence of “boyhood” quite like this.

Mason has three different dads in this movie, the first being the biological father played by Hawke. Hawke brings a bohemian charm to the well-meaning but somewhat flaky character; he’s basically a good man who didn’t have what it takes to last with Arquette’s mom. While he isn’t there every day, he remains an important force in Mason’s life.

As Mason’s first stepdad, Marco Perella delivers a chilling depiction of alcoholism, unlike any I have ever seen onscreen. We first see him as Mom’s charming college professor, and ultimately see him in a visceral, frightening sequence as a man out of control in front of his family. Perella worked on the film for three years, and his snarky disintegration into alcoholic madness is deserving of Oscar consideration.

Arquette is brilliant as the mother who makes a few mistakes along the way (her third husband isn’t much better than the first two), yet she keeps on chugging. She has a breakdown scene when Mason is heading off to college to which many moms will relate.

It’s fun to see both Hawke and Arquette at Mason’s high school graduation party. While they surely aren’t Coltrane’s real parents, they probably attained some sort of honorary aunt and uncle status, having known Coltrane for most of his life.

And what of Coltrane as Mason? How did Linklater know he was casting such an interesting kid when he signed him up? I have no idea, but every moment that Coltrane spends on the screen feels real. I especially liked young Mason’s face when he was getting an unwanted haircut. Coltrane does a great job of showing the pain and tragedy of a haircut no boy wants to display at school.

It must’ve been a crazy day when they wrapped shooting on Boyhood. The resulting product is one of amazing foresight, almost impossible visual consistency, and rewarding performances.

This is a movie that will only be made once. Nobody will ever pull off anything like Boyhood again. Linklater has made a permanent, monumental mark on cinematic history.

Boyhood is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).