Taika Waititi’s Boy is a cinematic gem for a number of reasons: it is well acted, brilliantly executed and aesthetically comprehensive, with well-balanced comedy and drama that has created one of the most charming and poised films. Boy is the story of two brothers who are reunited with their absentee father, Alamein (Waititi) in the glorious summer of 1984. Boy (James Rolleston) and Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) live with their grandma and four cousins in the small coastal town of Raukokore in the north island of New Zealand. The ’80s setting is not only evident through the references to Michael Jackson and E.T. but in that 10-year-old Boy is left in charge of the house and younger relatives when his grandma has to go to a funeral. The self-sufficiency of children has become an icon of childhoods been and gone and Boy very much makes a play for nostalgia; the whole film is one long, hot summer.
Though there are interactions with adults, the film relies heavily on Rolleston and Eketone-Whitu. Both first-time actors, they act with the subtlety of seasoned professionals. Eketone-Whitu is soulful and bittersweet, playing the silent, weird younger sibling who is at times Boy’s sidekick or “bloody nuisance”. Rolleston plays Boy with such energy you really feel Boy is a character who exists outside of the film’s 90 minutes. Waititi too delivers a strong performance, giving more depth to the ‘manchild’ archetype. Though Alamein is trying to establish himself as a gangleader, it is offset, not only by his childishness, but by the moments where he is surprisingly gentle and sincere. This makes Alamein a character in his own right, not a flat plot device for Boy and Rocky to go off and spark their coming-of-age tale.
The opening can mislead as it begins with the traditionally clunky exposition speech from the lead, talking about himself. However in Boy there is a kineticism and visual strength to the narrative that establishes the tone from the off. It is here that Waititi firmly establishes two stylistic tools that create Boy’s tone as they illustrate how Boy and Rocky think. Boy has short fantasy sequences that draw inspiration from Kiwiana, video games, and, most prominently, Michael Jackson. Rocky´s thoughts are treated to animated children’s drawings. The juxtaposition of such imaginative imagery with the representational imagery of the rest of the film visualises the struggles of each of the main characters, especially Alamein’s experiences – real life does not come close to the life they dream of.
Again in the opening scene this theme is aptly introduced when, after his speech, Boy sits down and is called a liar by the boy behind him. This is also where the film’s more melancholic undertones become present, all within the opening twenty minutes, and it is clear that both father and sons are living in the fallout of their wife/mother’s death. This grounds the film in a way that stops it from being child-friendly: the characters are forever under threat. Indeed, though gang violence and drugs are treated reasonably lightly in the film, their presence alludes to a feeling of decay and unease, as do the shots of rusting cars and abandoned houses.
In the DVD extras of his first film, Eagle vs. Shark, Waititi cites Wes Anderson as an influence. This is clear in the way Waititi addresses the darker, more dramatic themes in Boy. One could draw parallels between Alamein and Anderson’s Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) who both have two sons and are badly coping with the off-screen loss of a beloved wife. Chas copes by being overly cautious, thus neglecting his sons’ need to be reckless. Alamein copes by becoming a low-level criminal and neglecting his sons, firstly by being in prison and later by behaving like a teenager. Comedy serves as the sugar to help the drama go down.
The representation of pop culture in Boy is also brilliantly treated. Given New Zealand’s isolation, especially before the internet, popular culture is reappropriated and reinterpreted in its new context. Waititi does this not only with appropriate humour (the “Maori Smurf” is a stroke of genius), but with a tenderness and beauty best shown when Rocky channels everything he’s heard about E.T. into one incredibly moving scene.
Coming-of-age tales are staple independent film fodder, but when they are done well they can resonate and stay with us. Waititi embraces this, having made Eagle vs. Shark first in order to learn how to make a film. Additionally, Waititi’s Oscar-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night was his first experimentation with Boy‘s subject matter. Boy is an example of a passion project gone right; Waititi was able to tell a story, clearly close to his heart, with just the right amount of editing to stop it becoming saccharine or ridiculous. Boy will charm you from the opening ‘Kia Ora’ to the closing “how was Japan?” All you need to do is watch.