Nothing scares Richard Linklater more than universal adulation. The maverick director has a theory that if everybody loves something—we’re thinking McDonald’s, Green Day, John Grisham—you’re better off avoiding it. “If everyone likes a movie,” he says, “there’s usually something kind of lame about it.” So when Boyhood, the $4 million cinematic experiment that had occupied 12 years of his life, debuted to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival almost exactly a year ago, it sort of wigged him out. But as he considered the positive responses—and talked to audience members—he noticed something strange. Lots of people liked it, but rarely for the same reasons. “Everyone was having a similar experience but a very different one based on his or her own life,” he says. “ ‘Oh, I had an a- -hole stepfather.’ ‘Oh, I have an older sibling.’ ‘Oh, my parents are divorced.’ People were glomming on to such different things while moving through the movie that it made me feel better. It was so personal to everyone.”

Now this little Rorschach test of a film, which tracks the progression of one boy’s childhood from first grade through his first day of college, has grown up itself. Released far from the autumn Oscar-movie months, on July 11—and now available on DVD and download—this summer indie sleeper has grossed more than $43 million worldwide and has matured into a confident young Oscar contender.

By any measure, that never should have happened. Boyhood eschews all the rules of filmmaking and ignores almost every Hollywood convention: It doesn’t feature megawatt stars, it rips apart the traditional three-act structure, and its most dramatic moments (hints of domestic violence, shoving in a school bathroom) would be mere footnotes in any other film. That sheer rebelliousness has secured Boyhood a spot in the Best Picture race—a level of recognition galaxies beyond what anyone involved with the film could have hoped for.

But that’s not the end of the story, because this movie, a movie that no major studio executive in her right mind would have greenlit, a movie unlike any ever made, has now become this season’s quiet frontrunner.

For more on Boyhood‘s unlikely Oscar ascent, pick up this week’s issue of EW, on stands Friday.