Following his irreverent superhero reboot Thor: Ragnarok, one of 2017’s most distinctive blockbusters, and his quirky Kiwi indie comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2016, it’s fair to say that interest in New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s back catalogue is high. Hence, no doubt, the DVD release of Waititi’s second feature, 2010’s big-hearted coming-of-age comedy Boy.
It’s fair to say, too, that the director’s signature style – his bathetic, deadpan wit; his unapologetic silliness; his big emotions – are all there in this earlier movie. But there’s a more serious side to Boy: a sense of ambition to deal with weightier issues, ones of grief, masculinity, family, even hope and potential (a word that the film’s lead seems understandably obsessed by). But they’re all delivered with such a remarkable lightness of touch, and a glorious sense of the absurd, that anything approaching portentous sermonising is swiftly undercut.
Boy (James Rolleston) – real name Alamein, after the World War Two battle – is a Michael Jackson-obsessed 11-year-old in remote Waihau Bay in New Zealand in 1984, gamely looking after his gaggle of younger siblings and cousins while their grandmother is away at a funeral. Among them is his younger brother, six-year-old Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, pictured above with James Rolleston), who’s convinced he has telekinetic superpowers, although they never seem to work (or rarely, at least).
After the surprise arrival of his semi-estranged father, also named Alamein (Waititi, pictured below with James Rolleston) – who’s been behind bars for robbery – accompanied by two deadbeat hangers-on, Boy is initially awe-struck. But he soon begins to see through the man’s bluster and bravado, and to realise that the heroic qualities he idolised in his dad existed only in his imagination.
Waititi gets astonishingly natural, utterly convincing performances from his two young leads – both amateurs at the time of filming (Rolleston, the story goes, turned up as an extra before being snapped as a replacement lead just days before filming started). Eketone-Whitu in particular is mesmerising as the otherworldly Rocky, not quite connected with events around him, immediately suspicious of his returning father’s motives, and barely comprehending the tragic fate of his mother. As their needy man-child of a father, Waititi walks a fine line between gormless humour and behaviour that’s far less forgiveable. It’s rather a broad portrayal, but one that’s persuasive nonetheless.Waititi makes reference to the deprivation of his isolated community, but context is never overemphasised – Boy is very much the story of its characters, despite its portrayal of a Maori people somewhat adrift from the modern world. Likewise, Adam Clark’s expressive cinematography contrasts the jaw-dropping splendours of the North Island landscape with the grimy poverty of a community that seems to be simply killing time.
Boy isn’t without its problems, one of which is its uneven pacing. Waititi seems to throw everything he can at his frenetic exposition – dance routines, animated kids’ drawings, asides to camera and plenty more – but then the far slower second act seems to drag, even threaten to lose its way. And it’s a shame that producers couldn’t rustle up any special features or commentaries to fill out this DVD release. But it’s a tender, big-hearted, often downright hilarious movie all the same, one that feels fresh, sincere, and never calculated. As in his later Hunt for the Wilderpeople – although here in a less polished, grittier way – Waititi dares to place kids firmly as his film’s focus, never patronising or romanticising them, but instead celebrating their strength and resilience.
Overleaf: watch the trailer for Boy