The film was shot over the course of twelve years, so the actors age, along with the time-line.
2002 – In the opening scene, six-year-old Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is laying in the grass outside his school, staring at the blue sky, when his divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) comes out from the school to take him home. She had just met with his teacher to talk about Mason who has stayed after school after getting in trouble for apparently putting rocks in a pencil sharpener machine which caused the machine to break. While Mason is clearly a curious kid, he doesn’t seem to put a lot of effort into his schoolwork or homework and has not been behaving himself lately.
We next see Mason hanging out with his friend Tommy (Elijah Smith), spraying graffiti on the walls and checking out provocative pictures of women in magazines.. He lives with his eight-year-old sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Nicknamed ‘Sam’, she enjoys ‘messing’ with her brother, as seen when she sings “Oops I Did It Again” to annoy him and then throws things at him just to make trouble. Olivia comes in to see what the ruckus is and Samantha pretends to cry to get Mason in trouble.
Olivia’s boyfriend Ted (Steven Chester Prince) comes over one day to take her out, but because the babysitter canceled, she chooses to stay and take care of Mason and Sam. Ted is annoyed and says he has plans to keep with his friends. Olivia stays and plays with her children and later reads to them “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”. While Mason tries to sleep, he overhears Olivia and Ted arguing. He gets up to check out the commotion, seeing Olivia stating that she wants to go out, but she is responsible for her children and she feels that Ted is blaming them for her lack of a social life. Ted walks out on her for good.
2003 – Olivia announces to her kids that they are moving to Houston, Texas in a small house that her mother (Libby Villari) found for them, and so she can go back to college at the University of Houston and work her way to a better job. Neither kid is excited about the move. When they get to Houston, Olivia’s ex-husband and the kids’ father, Mason Evans Sr. (Ethan Hawke) comes to pick them up. He is very happy to see his kids, but Grandma is not quite as trusting of Mason Sr. He offers to take them back home to Olivia, despite Grandma telling him not to.
Mason Sr. takes the kids bowling. Sam scores four strikes in a row, but when Mason goes up to roll, he misses. He asks his dad to get bumpers set up, but Mason Sr. says bumpers are not necessary, and that we don’t use bumpers in life, as it takes the fun and challenge out of things. The kids are both shown trying to compete for their dad’s attention, both trying to show off their accomplishments. They then sit to have a meal, watching news of the situation of the war in Iraq. Mason Sr. expresses his feelings on the situation, saying it’s not the fault of those in Iraq for what happened in recent times, and he tells his kids if they were old enough to vote, do NOT vote for Bush. He also has a smoking habit that bothers the children over the smell. He brings them home, waiting for Olivia to come back. When she does, she learns the kids didn’t finish their homework or have a proper meal. She calls Mason Sr. outside to talk, and Mason watches them argue. Mason Sr. leaves.
2004 – Olivia takes Mason to class with her one day. After the lecture, she introduces him to her professor, Bill Wellbrock (Marco Perella) an older middle-aged man who is also a divorcee. He appears charming and kind to Mason. Mason leaves the room to wait for his mother, and he hears Bill not-so-subtly asking Olivia if she may get a babysitter so they can go out. They eventually do go on a date, with Bill’s kids, Randy (Andrew Villarreal) and Mindy (Jamie Howard) staying over Olivia’s house playing on the trampoline with Mason and Sam.
2005 – Olivia and Bill get married and have just returned from their honeymoon in Paris, France, with Mason and Sam having Randy and Mindy joining them as a family. The kids spend time together, like going to the opening party of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” at the local book store. Bill proves to be a strict parent, particularly toward Randy. He seems to show a bit of favoritism to Mason.
However, Bill is shown to start drinking. His demeanor toward his kids, as well as Mason and Sam seems to be getting harsher. He criticizes the kids for not finishing their work, and harshly scolding them in front of Olivia.
One weekend, Mason Sr. takes the kids out again, but they don’t try and talk to him so much. It begins to bug their dad (especially since he’s quit smoking) a lot until he pulls over and insists that they talk to him about anything, whether it’s drama at school or anything else they’ve done lately. The kids then reconnect with Mason Sr., and he takes them to a museum, a baseball game, and they play hide and seek around the Houston area. Mason Sr. later takes the kids back to his house, where they stay over for the weekend. Being part of a band, Mason Sr. plays a song for his kids with his slob roommate. At night, while Mason sleeps on the couch, he asks his dad if he believes that there’s magic in the world. Mason Sr. responds with mentioning something about a whale with sonar and asks Mason if he’d believe him if he told him about that.
Bill orders Mason and Randy to have haircuts in their home. It’s especially unpleasant for Mason, as he was happy with his long hair. He expresses his disdain to his mother, who says she’ll talk to Bill. She leaves Mason at school, where the other kids laugh at his haircut. One girl, however, passes a note to Mason, thinking his haircut looks “kewl”. They smile at each other.
2006 – Mason and Randy are riding around town with their friend on their bikes, when they come home to find Olivia in the garage, crying on the floor. The boys run to her, and Bill comes out loudly stating that she had an accident and is just overreacting. Bill’s alcoholism and abusive behavior has clearly gotten worse over time. Over dinner one afternoon, he brings his liquor bottle to the table and menacingly asks the family if they have a problem with his drinking. Everyone says ‘no’, though Mason is silent. Bill knows Mason doesn’t like him, and he jokes that he doesn’t like himself either. Mason still says nothing, and Bill throws his drinking glass at Mason’s plate, shattering it and frightening Olivia and the kids.
When Olivia is out of the house, Bill interrogates the kids, thinking they sent secret messages to her or to other people to rat him out for his now-abusive behavior. He checks through all their phones and sees nothing except on Sam’s phone, and Sam admits that she spoke to her mom, who told Sam that the kids should stay in their rooms when Bill would appear drunk. Bill takes the kids to an ATM and sees that Olivia took all their money. He forces Mason and Randy to go into the liquor store to cash in a $500 check (and so he can buy more hard liquor for himself). The drunk Bill nearly gets into an car accident while they are driving home.
Some time later that day, Olivia comes home with a girl friend to take Mason and Sam away, but Bill stands between them, yelling at the kids to go back inside the house. Mason and Sam manage to get out, with Bill aggressively pushing them ahead. They stay at Olivia’s friend’s house for the time being. Sam asks her mom why they couldn’t take Mindy and Randy. Olivia says she’s not their legal guardian and it would be kidnapping. She starts crying because she doesn’t have the answers, as well as having to leave Mindy and Randy behind with their abusive and drunkard father to face an uncertain future.
2007 – Mason has started a new school in the small town of San Marcos, a community close to Austin, meeting new friends along the way. One day, he goes to see his mom at her new job in teaching psychology at the Texas State College. He sits through her lecture, and then hears her invite the students for a gathering over Thanksgiving that she is hosting with a fellow professor. When she and Mason get home, Olivia scolds Sam for not going to pick Mason up from school.
2008 – As the fall season comes around, Mason Sr. has his kids go around the neighborhood putting on Obama/Biden signs for the upcoming Presidential elections. Mason goes to the house of a right-wing Republican and asks if he can put the sign up, and the man sends Mason away. The kids do find a lady who is definitely pro-Obama, calling herself an “Obama Mama”.
Mason Sr. learns that Samantha has a boyfriend and talks to her and Mason about contraception.
On another occasion, Mason Sr. takes his son camping. They go for a swim in the lake, hike through the woods, and then sit around a campfire at night, making s’mores and having an amusing conversation about if there will ever be another “Star Wars” movie.
Olivia and her co-worker host the Thanksgiving party. Mason talks to one of Olivia’s students in his room. She tells him that his mom is her favorite professor. While eating, a student named Jim (Brad Hawkins), an Afghanistan/Iraq War veteran, talks about his experiences serving his country. Mason later sees Jim talking to his mom outside, as she is clearly interested. Eventually, he ends up moving in with her.
2009/2010 – Mason makes new friends over time in his new high school. He does have a brief encounter with two bullies in the restroom, both of whom harass him but then leave, flipping him the bird. Mason later walks home with his school friend Jill (Evie Thompson), who mentions not liking the “Twilight” series, as well as noting that one of her friends has a crush on Mason.
One of Mason’s new friends comes over asking if he wants to go camping with him and other friends. Olivia lets Mason go, though the kids really just go to an unfinished home where they drink beer and berate each other for their lack of sexual experiences.
2011 – Mason (having just turned 15) is dropped off by his friends while making out with his girlfriend in their car. He also shares a joint with his friends. He comes home to find his mother hosting another party. He admits he’s been drinking and smoking a little, but Olivia doesn’t seem that upset. Instead, she wishes her son a happy birthday.
The next day, Mason Sr. comes to pick up Mason and Sam again, with his new wife Annie (Jenni Tooley), and his newborn son Cooper (Landon Collier), while Olivia is talking to a handyman named Ernesto (Roland Ruiz) about fixing the pipes. She asks if he goes to school, and he says he doesn’t have time since he works all day. She suggests going to take night classes. The kids, meanwhile, get ready to leave. Mason Sr. thanks Jim for giving Mason a camera. On the road, Mason learns that his dad gave away his old car to buy a minivan. Mason is upset because he recalls his dad promising him that car when he turned 16. Mason Sr. doesn’t remember saying such a thing. He does, however, give his son a mix CD of songs from the individual Beatles members after they went solo, because, to Mason Sr., each of them put together still creates an effective flow of Beatles music as if they were still together as a band.
The family gets to the home of Annie’s parents, Cliff (Richard Andrew Jones) and Nana (Karen Jones). They are much more conservative than Mason Sr. is used to, but they still love him and his kids. They give Mason a Bible with his name on it, and a rifle. Mason Sr. and Cliff teach Sam and Mason to shoot, and then later take them to church.
2012 – Mason has developed an active interest in photography. He spends a lot of time in the school darkroom, which cuts into his schoolwork. His teacher, Mr. Turlington (Tom McTigue), comes in and lectures the boy on his lack of work, encouraging him to do better. He assigns Mason to photograph the school’s upcoming football game.
Another day or so later, Mason goes to a party and meets a girl named Sheena (Zoe Graham). He expresses his views on the world and life, which she finds weird, but she is definitely charmed by him. Mason comes home late, with Jim sitting outside waiting for him. He is angry at Mason’s lack of respect and disregard for rules.
2013 – Mason (now age 17) now works at a restaurant as a busboy/dishwasher as his weekend and after-school job. He eats some leftover shrimp with his co-worker April (Jessie Tilton). They seem to flirt for a bit before Mason goes to wash dishes. His stern boss (Richard Robichaux) comes in, scolding Mason for slacking on his work. However, he does tell Mason that he’s up for a fry cook job over the summer, which would bring in more pay for him.
Somewhere in between this, Olivia has broken up with Jim and she plans to sell the house.
Mason takes Sheena to the University of Texas in Austin to stay with Sam (who is attending the college as a freshman) at her dorm in college while her roommate is out. On the trip, Mason mentions deactivating his Facebook account, which Sheena makes fun of him for, since she feels more connected to everything with that site. They get to Austin and hang out with Sam and her new boyfriend (Will Harris). At night, Mason and Sheena go to a diner to munch on chips and queso at 3 in the morning. They go through the city and watch the sunrise, sharing a kiss. Later, they have sex in Sam’s roommate’s bed. The roommate comes in and catches them in bed. She briefly chats with Mason, despite the situation being a bit awkward.
At school, Mason collects his pictures that he had for a photography contest, in which he earned a second-place silver medal. He gets a text from Sheena to meet him under a tree. Turns out that Sheena cheated on Mason with a college lacrosse player, and her friends have been talking, since Mason already bought prom tickets for both of them. Sheena breaks up with Mason.
2014 – Mason (now age 18) has finally graduated high school. His friend drives him home and joins Mason for a graduation party. All of Mason’s family is there, and even his boss shows up to give him a savings bond. The family takes pictures and toasts to Mason’s future.
One afternoon, Olivia takes her kids to a restaurant, telling them that she is moving to a new place and that they must gather the childhood possessions that they wish to keep, now that both of them are no longer going to be living at home. The manager comes over, and it happens to be Ernesto the handyman. He thanks Olivia for encouraging him to pursue an education, which has brought him better job opportunities, and he offers them a free meal on him.
Mason hangs out with his dad at a lounge, discussing Mason’s recent break-up. Mason Sr. says Sheena was too square for his boy, and that if he keeps working on himself, he’ll meet better girls. Mason Sr.’s roommate then gets with his band and plays a song for Mason’s recent graduation.
Some months later in September, Mason is set to move out to attend the Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas and packs to move out of Olivia’s apartment. He debates on leaving or taking his framed first photograph with him. Olivia starts to cry, knowing her kids have left the nest and saying that she has nothing to look forward to now but death.
Mason drives off to college. He stops at a gas station to fill up, but also manages to take photographs. He gets to his dorm and meets his roommate, Dalton (Maximillian McNamara) and his girlfriend Barb (Taylor Weaver), along with Barb’s roommate Nicole (Jessi Mechler). They invite Mason to go hiking with them, and they give him part of a pot brownie. On the hike, Mason chats with Nicole, who has a teaching job. The four of them get to an area where Dalton is yelling excitedly to the air. Mason sits with Nicole, who asks him if he thinks about when people tell him to seize moments. She thinks it’s the opposite, and that moments seize us. Mason ponders the thought, and smiles at Nicole.