Arriving in Toronto a few years after becoming New Zealand’s highest grossing film production of all time, Boy is a pleasant little surprise that finds just the right balance between stylized quirk and heartfelt emotion. The film is written and directed by Taika Waititi (who also plays a crucial role), one of the directorial voices behind Flight Of The Conchords brief stab at cable cult status and the man behind the Jemaine Clement side project Eagle Vs. Shark. As can be assumed by that resume, Waititi has a knack for bitter quirk comedy filled with awkward pauses and surrealistic interludes. Boy is filled with those trendy trademarks, but thankfully it’s not merely a hipster-baiting comedy filled with trash pop culture references. The film starts that way and is quite amusing before gradually evolving into a far more personal coming of age story set amongst the Maori equivalent of the Trailer Park Boys. It’s enough to suggest that given the right breaks, Waititi could go on to have a more interesting career than the faux-folk duo he helped popularize.
The “boy” in question is James Rolleston, named after his absentee father Alamein (Waititi). Having never spent much time with him, Rolleston idealizes his father irrationally. He spins wild fantasies about how his father can dance like Michael Jackson (the film is set in 1984, after all), break out of prison using only a spoon, and do pretty well anything else a young kid would be impressed by. One summer his grandmother who has raised Rolleston along with his brother and three cousins becomes ill and is sent off to the hospital. After first Rolleston attempts to keep the family going himself and then the father suddenly appears. Turns out that is an outlaw, just not a superhero. He’s more of a petty thug who has organized a gang just so he has beer buddies around at all time. Rolleston is enamored by his father and does anything he asks, digging up the backyard for buried treasure, helping out with the marijuana business, and encouraging the man’s endless stories and fantasies.
That’s the first half of the film and while it’s clear to the audience that daddy is a bit of a douchebag, Waititi presents the character entirely through Rolleston’s eyes with every idiotic moment filtered through the idealized legend the boy has built up over many lonely years. Then things start to shift, Rolleston begins to see his father as who he is and Waititi slides his film out of stylized Wes Anderson country into a honest and sad depiction of dejected Maori life. That’s not an easy transition, effectively turning Rushmore into The 400 Blows at the midway point. Yet the filmmaker pulls it off admirably. His subject is that awkward moment when kids see their parents as real, flawed people for the first time and the stylistic shift feels like an honest representation of that uncomfortable mindset. Though we laugh at the characters early on, its clear Waititi genuinely cares for them all and the dramatic shift feels completely appropriate when it comes.
Waititi films in empty deserts and expansive horizons, settings that can easily stand in for larger than epic destinations. His sad and comic creations wander in and out of these exotic deep focus tableaus without ever feeling like models in carefully stylized compositions. The director’s work with the child actors is impressively naturalistic and whether he allowed them to be themselves through improv or guided them through a script, he clearly has a gift for nurturing young performers (the previously unknown Rolleston in particular is an impressive find who hopefully won’t simply disappear like so many untrained child actors). The most memorable performance in the movie is probably from Waititi himself as the father. He’s got a difficult task of opening the movie as a comedic caricature before gradually letting the sad little man bubble up through the fantasy. He manages the same delicate balancing act with as much ease as an actor as he does as director. By the end of the film, the man makes a case for being the most talented member of the entire Conchords community and hopefully he’ll get the same opportunity to kiss Hollywood’s golden ring (well, beyond his appearance in The Green Lantern last year. That thing didn’t do favors for anyone’s career).
Boy is definitely a wonderful movie filled with laughs and genuine insight, but sadly it will probably disappear. There’s no way to create a particularly commercial tagline (“a young boy who loves Michael Jackson is gently abused by his pathetic father in this tragicomic romp”) and it’s such a small and delicate little movie that could easily be hurt by too much inappropriate hype or praise. Hopefully people will discover it two long years after being completed or Waititi will at least get a crack at a bigger movie that will give Boy a little attention in hindsight. At the very least, it’s certainly something worth checking out during the inevitably brief theatrical run for a pleasant downgrade from Hollywood’s most expensive season. (Also, as an added bonus, if you’re one of those folks who enjoys post-credits summer blockbuster easter eggs, there’s a hysterical little Thriller parody tag worth staying in your seat for.)