Two main observations:
- Two-and-a-half hours is a long time for a "slice-of-life" picture.
- The gimmick is surprisingly effective, and actually transcends mere gimmickry by the end of the film.
That said, you have to be able to get past point one to enjoy point two. Mason (Coltrane) is a young man whose parents have split up, and when the movie starts, his dad has been away long enough to prompt his mom to wonder if Mason really remembers that much about him.
Dad's obsessed with his non-existent music career and struggling against settling down, which is maybe something he should have thought of before having two kids. Mason's sister Samantha (the director's daughter, Lorelei Linklater) is truly awful, manipulating her mother and being mean to her brother.
The story arc, such as it is, is powered mostly by Mom's drive to make herself a better life, getting an education, a degree, and ultimately teaching in college. This ability to make that life is almost completely scuttled by her complete inability to pick a decent man to be her husband.
Mason is pretty much on the periphery of the action, with these things affecting his life. As such, the movie's emotional impact comes from a kind of emotional pointillism: Little things that build up over the course of the 2:40 minutes, like getting a note from a girl who says she likes you, or learning how to do something well.
It's kind of a sad thing to see this cheery little kid grow into a sullen, muted teenager, but I guess that's what happens (if not always, then a lot). Remember those old '50s teen movies, where the kids were all spirited and, well, maybe a little wild, with their surfboards and sock hops, but basically good-humored, whether hanging 10 in Hawaii or fighting The Blob in Pennsylvania?
I miss those days, even though they were well over before I was born. But I think I would've preferred the average teen to be more like Tommy Kirk than James Dean. (After all, when everyone's James Dean, then nobody is. Or something.)
We liked it, The Boy and I, length and all. I think, however, this is one that would have a much harder time holding one's attention outside the theater. It's too low key. There are some scary moments. There are a few funny moments, as well, though not nearly enough. (At least, I'd like to think of a distillation of life having a lot more humor in it.)
Mostly, though, it powers through on little dramas, and a kind of accumulation of sentiment. You see the kid grow up, and that's an entirely different experience from seeing one actor play a character at one age, and another playing a character at another age.
We have not seen Linklater's Before... series of films, though they must have a similar effect, being filmed with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy at three different and widely separated points in time. We did enjoy Bernie, however.
This is probably a bit more demanding than Linklater's other films, overall, and definitely not for everyone, but it can be rewarding if you invest in it.