I saw Boyhood the other night and it was awesome. But I’m still trying to figure out whether part of its awesomeness ultimately boils down to “gimmick” filmmaking, as opposed to real art and inventiveness.

I’m sure you know the technical details, but the film was shot over ten years, with all the actors (including the two kids at the center of the story) showing the real honest-to-god aging and maturing of their characters in real time. But after watching the film, I found myself imagining an alternate version of the film, perfectly identical to the real thing — scene for scene, shot for shot, line for line — except made with entirely traditional techniques. In this alternative film, the young leads would have been played by three different actors (one as a child, one as a pre-teen, one as a teenager), with they and the rest of the cast aged up or down with hair and makeup. Which is to say, a totally normal, totally traditional biopic.

If I'd seen that alternate film, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much, because objectively speaking, the actual story in Boyhood is a little bit on the thin side. It’s a collection of great moments, but relatively few of them really connect from beginning to end. In that way, Boyhood reminded me a lot of Angela’s Ashes from about fifteen years ago — which is also a film following a character from boyhood to adolescence, but in which the central character is played by three different actors at different ages. Which is to say, a totally normal, totally traditional biopic.

So in thinking about why I loved Boyhood and why I thought Angela’s Ashes was about as exciting as warm yogurt, I start to ask myself whether the only reason I love Boyhood is for its technical side — the insane, amazing, brilliant experiment of actually shooting a movie over ten years. Or are those technical considerations totally secondary to the more important emotional connection that they allowed the story to create — the idea that explicitly knowing that I’m seeing these characters age over ten years creates a resonance with those characters that no traditional film could ever create?