One of the reasons I like small indie films is that every now and then you come across a real gem. Taika Waititi's film, Boy, definitely qualifies. Set in 1984 in New Zealand, Boy is a coming-of-age comedy drama about an 11-year-old Maori boy - nicknamed Boy (winningly played by James Rolleston) - who worships pop star Michael Jackson and lives, along with a younger brother, an indeterminate number of cousins and a pet goat, with his grandmother in a rural Maori community on the coast. All of the kids lack parents, in Boy's case because his mother died giving birth to his younger brother and because his father hasn't been around for years, a condition for which Boy makes up elaborate fantasies, which the film reveals in the opening scene were Boy is giving a prepared talk to his class at school:
"Kia ora. My name is Boy, and welcome to my interesting world. My favorite person is Michael Jackson. He is the best singer and dancer in the world. My favorite subjects are art, social studies and Michael Jackson. I have a six-year-old brother called Rocky. He's got powers. I'm named after my dad. He can dance as good as Michael Jackson. He's a master carver, deep sea treasure diver, soldier, captain of the rugby team and he holds the record for punching out the most number of people with one hand. My dad isn't here right now. He's a busy man. When he comes home he's taking me to see Michael Jackson - live. The end."
The reality of Boy's situation however quickly becomes clear when a classmate named Kingi taunts him after his talk:
Kingi: "You're a liar. Your dad's not overseas; he's in jail for robbery."
Boy: "Shut up Kingi! You don't know!"
Kingi: "Yes, he's in the same cell block as my dad."
Most of Boy's life consists of helping his grandmother look after the younger kids, hanging out with his friends, and trying to impress an aloof older girl named Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell) on whom he has an impossible crush in spite of the fact that she's a teenager and towers over him by almost a foot. He's so fixated on Chardonnay that he's completely oblivious to Dynasty (Moerangi Tihore) a pretty but quiet girl closer to his own age who wistfully keeps hoping he'll notice her, at one point showing him a hidden grove of pot plants that belong to her uncle, who happens to be the biggest pot dealer in the area. (Note: Dynasty's name is apparently due to the pervasiveness of American pop culture of the time as she has a brother named Dallas and a sister named Falcon Crest).
When his grandmother (Mavis Paenga) suddenly has to leave for a funeral across the country and leaves him in charge for a week, no one is more surprised than Boy when his dad - Alamein (Taika Waititi) - suddenly shows up one night along with two low-life cohorts he claims are his gang. Boy is delighted. His younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) however is wary - Alamein is a complete stranger to him, having been absent his entire life.
Recently released from prison, Alamein says he's there to reconnect with his sons and spend some quality time with them. The reality though is that he's there to retrieve the money from the robbery he was in prison for, money that he buried in a field before getting caught. The problem is that he can't remember just where he buried it, having been seriously stoned at the time. It quickly becomes clear that in spite of his efforts to portray himself as a serious gangster, Alamein is instead as incompetent at being a criminal as he is at everything else, including being a father - at one point he tells Boy "Can you stop calling me `dad'? It sounds weird." It takes time, however, for this reality to penetrate Boy's continued fantasies, which the film frequently plays with by showing scenes with Boy repeatedly imagining Alamein in Michael Jackson videos. But as the facade is gradually worn away by his father's pathetic bumbling and self-absorbed irresponsibility, Boy finds himself having to choose between falling into his father's lifestyle of directionless denial or taking responsibility.
While the film is serious at times, given the nature of the themes involved, Waititi imbues it with a lot of unique humor, particularly in the idiosyncratic dialogue that gives flesh to the laid-back culture of Boy's rural Maori world, like in this typical exchange when Boy runs into some of his friends in a pasture:
Boy: "So what you guys been up to?"
Dallas: "We're self employed now."
Boy: "What's your job?"
Dallas: "Chucking mud at those cows."
While most of the actors in Boy are first-timers, Waititi did an exceptional job in selecting them and as a group they give very natural performances that don't feel affected at all. James Rolleston is highly engaging as Boy and his performance takes you in completely as he goes from a kid who goes from hero-worshipping a father he cannot remember to coming to grips with the harsh disappointment of just how far short of his idyllic fantasies his father falls. You can see the conflict rising in him as he teeters on the edge of becoming just like his father even as he's realizing just how little that really means. Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu's Rocky is equally engaging, a shy introvert to Boy's motor-mouthed extrovert. Like Boy, Rocky has an equally creative imagination, but while Boy's fantasies are centered around his father and the way he wishes the man to be, Rocky directs his inward, imagining himself to have mental powers that give him some control over a world where in fact he has no control. Their differences are brought out in other ways, as in a scene where we find that Rocky regularly spends time at his mother's grave, openly missing what he has never known, while Boy cannot bring himself to even open the gate to the graveyard, a characteristic we later see that he shares with his father - the tendency to shy away from the harsher realities of life. Another nice touch is the subtle ways in which, as Boy is starting to back away from their father, Rocky is starting to move closer, seeing the damaged man their father is and trying to use his imagined powers to fix him. And Taika Waititi's Allamein is a deft performance in its own right, finding just the right balance to make the man likeable and sympathetic while at the same time showing his pathetic weakness, revealing him to be a man who never really grew up and who has no idea of what it means to be responsible, let alone to be a father. And Moerangi Tihore's Dynasty is marvelously expressive in a quiet way, never really giving voice to her thoughts but you know exactly what she's feeling from her eyes - wistful as Boy gives a sparkler to Chardonnay who only seems bored by it; hurt and betrayed when she catches Boy showing Alamein and his cohorts where her uncle's secret pot grove is hidden. She doesn't have to say a word - Boy's guilty reaction shows that he knows from her eyes what he's done.
A couple of minor notes. Taika Waititi, a relatively new director, is best known for his first indie film, Eagle vs Shark, another off-beat comedy that's become something of a cult film. Boy was actually released in 2010, and although it turned out to be a hit and ultimately became the highest grossing film in New Zealand, it is only now making its way to the US. It may be hard to find, but it's definitely worth the effort.
And one other thing definitely worth mentioning is this fantastic and completely unexpected dance number that comes up at the end with all of the cast doing a traditional Maori haka dance mashed up with Michael Jackson's Thriller. While it has nothing to do with the plot, it brings all of the elements of the movie together and is enormously fun to watch. I looked it up and found it available on youtube if you want to check it out.
Highly recommended for anyone who likes coming of age movies, small indie films or just plain enjoyable films in general.