Taika Waititi’s Oscar-nominated Two Cars One Night showed its child protagonists constructing their own world in an unpromising situation—the pub car park while their parents drank inside. Boy, Waititi’s wonderful feature-length expansion of the short which set his course as a filmmaker, demonstrates a likeminded empathy towards children and their unique worldview, refusing to patronise them while offering such a convincing depiction of childhood that Waititi will invariably be required to bat away irrelevant questions regarding autobiography and realism. A marked improvement from Waititi’s enjoyable if occasionally forced debut, Eagle vs Shark, Boy is a hilarious yet unsettlingly dark tale of family love and youthful wonderment. But it’s also much more than that. It’s an emotionally moving work underlined by a pitch-perfect ending, and a desperately sad core beneath its laughter.
Set amongst the North Island’s East Coast settlements in Waihau Bay, Boy’s titular lead (James Rolleston) is an eleven year old kid who’s fiercely proud of his absent father, and acts as a patriarch to his brother and younger cousins following his grandmother’s departure to Wellington for a couple of weeks. Life, however, collapses when his father returns. Boy believes his father Alamein (played by Waititi himself) is a decorated war hero, deep-sea diver and related to Michael Jackson. On the contrary, he’s nothing more than a petty gangster recently released from jail, and has little conception of how to be a good father. Situated in the 1980s, and Waititi nails the homages and the national setting. Everything from Shogun, to ‘Poi E’, to insults of “you egg” add to the milieu, and it’s an absolute pleasure to witness a local film refusing to sell its setting short to accommodate a more international audience.
Waititi is developing himself as an auteur, one with a characteristically skewed view of things. And while many directors use this approach to appear ‘quirky’—and certainly Waititi’s debut feature could be accused of employing quirky tactics—Boy feels much more grounded. It’s as if the warped worldview of his characters is a necessary way of dealing with the pain in their lives. The animation, random asides, and unpredictable digressions work better in this film and are seamlessly sewed into the narrative—they act as character development, establish the backdrop more persuasively than in Eagle vs Shark, and are crucial in terms of the emotional core of the film (despite their frequent hilarity). In this respect, all the filmmaker comparisons that Waititi garnered early on (e.g. Wes Anderson) seem rather silly now, as Boy conveys a depth of feeling that many of the eccentric American indie directors have never even come close to possessing. Waititi is assisted by some brilliant performances: Rolleston and Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, who plays Boy’s brother Rocky, in particular are excellent, while Waititi himself manages to humanise the thoroughly dislikeable father. The charming score by the Phoenix Foundation works beautifully too. And while visually the film is perhaps a little too understated, it avoids falling back on New Zealand landscape clichés, and is loaded with visual jokes. Boy is a truly fantastic film, one that’s hard to call anything but a triumph.