About a Boy

The director Taika Waititi has been a master of a certain infectious, effervescent brand of offbeat humour since his scrappy 2004 ‘48 Hours’ entry Heinous Crime, which, although it was shot in a very tight timeframe and on a budget, shows how much passion and effort Waititi has for the craft of filmmaking: he performed almost all the roles, in a variety of makeshift costumes, and managed to create something wholly original—and awesomely bizarre—out of nothing.

In the years that followed he directed music videos for various Wellington bands, and in 2005 he made Two Cars, One Night, one of the finest short films ever produced in this country. The black-and-white short embodies a sort of magic ruralism as it tells the story of a boy, Romeo, and his brother, Ed, as they sit in their parents’ car outside a pub, waiting for closing time, and taunt and fumble their way through a conversation with a girl, Polly, in the next car over. From Ed’s nerdiness—he wants to be a lawyer when he grows up, and stays in the car reading a book about “crazy horses”—to Romeo’s romantic streak, the film quickly and simply gives its characters an emotional depth that many feature films’ protagonists lack—all in only twelve minutes. It was rightly nominated for an Academy Award.

With that success, Waititi began writing Boy, the semi-autobiographical, coming-of-adolescence story of a kid growing up in a small rural town on the East Coast, using Two Cars as a framework. In between Two Cars and Boy, Waititi made the excellent WWII short Tama Tu, and Eagle vs. Shark, his first feature—a comedy sharply dismissed by some for being too similar in look and feel to Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite—which starred Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. But while Shark relies quite heavily on Conchords-style humour, Boy draws on a wellspring of authentic emotions to create genuinely funny moments. Waititi sees Boy as his first feature film because it was in the back of his mind all along; perhaps because he thought about it for so long, or perhaps simply because of the nature of the story, it is by far the most personal expression he’s yet put on film.

The year is 1984, and Boy, our simply-named protagonist—played with an outstanding naturalism by James Rolleston—is an 11-year-old obsessed, like many kids his age, with Michael Jackson. He lives in the semi-isolated community of Waihau Bay with his grandma, a couple of his cousins and his brother Rocky—who thinks he has magic powers. His Dad, Alamein, has been away—in jail, actually, for robbery—for seven years, but he’s finally coming home, and he’s bought his gang, The Crazy Horses, with him. (The gang is actually just two of his mates.) But it turns out Alamein—played with verve and astute comic timing by Waititi himself—is actually only coming back home so he can find the cash he buried in a paddock when he was on the run from the cops, and get out of Waihau Bay forever. What he finds instead of the money, though, is a son whose idyllic memory of his father doesn’t match reality, and with Boy’s mother not around—she died giving birth to Rocky—Alamein is forced to get to know his son from scratch, almost as a friend rather than his own offspring. The journey of reconnection could easily have been saccharine or gratuitously dramatic in the hands of a lesser storyteller, but here it’s injected with equal measures of warmth and comedy.

Like Colson Whitehead’s 2009 novel Sag Harbor, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, and Richard Kelly’s sci-fi ode to ’80s adolescence, Donnie Darko, Boy accurately recreates and wonderfully romanticises its small-town period setting. But instead of New Coke, “Rock Me Amadeus” or Echo & The Bunnymen, the cultural artefacts on display here are the seemingly culturally-pervasive E.T., Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and—kiwiana lingering more quietly in the background—Billy T. James, “Poi E,” and the Goodnight Kiwi. The Phoenix Foundation, Prince Tui Teka, Herbs, various traditional Māori songs and, of course, Michael Jackson, make up the soundtrack, and the film is in fact dedicated to Jackson (“Shamon in peace”) plus there’s a brilliant sequence before the closing titles which combines “Poi E” and a haka with the dance moves, graveyard setting—and Vincent Price’s cackling laughter—of the “Thriller” video.

With Boy, Waititi establishes himself as New Zealand’s Wes Anderson. He has the same homespun, quirky sensibility and impeccable comic timing: witness the hand-drawn animation sequences that occasionally take over the film’s frame and let us explore Rocky’s innermost thoughts, and idiosyncratic moments of offbeat humour fused with heartfelt tenderness, like when Alamein—with the help of one of his fellow gang members—props a ladder up to his son’s bedroom window to say goodnight. It would be a bit of a stretch to connect Anderson’s distant obsession with his patriarchs to the converse—Waititi’s intimate adoration for his—but where Anderson happily exists at an emotional and physical remove from his characters (most obvious in his ‘dollhouse’ shots, of which there’s at least one in each of his films) Waititi wears his heart on his sleeve, bringing a close, genuine warmth and an abundance of emotion to the screen, not only in the direction and camerawork, but in the performances he exacts from his actors.

In some ways, Boy is a mashup of Two Cars, One Night and Eagle vs. Shark: the artistic flourishes of the former and the hilarious comic sensibility of the latter are blended with affecting emotional sincerity and imaginative storytelling to create something truly magical; Boy is, unequivocally, the best New Zealand film since Once Were Warriors.

Boy opens on March 25th.

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