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Boy

dir: Taika Waititi
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Do you remember a time when Michael Jackson was neither an obituary notice nor a punchline to an increasingly sad set of jokes? Do you remember when everybody had names that came from popular alcoholic beverages and American soap operas? And do you remember when ET was the closest we could come to a cinematic hero who was like Jesus, Buddha and Chuck Norris all rolled up into one?

If you can’t, then you’re either under twenty, you’re Amish, or you’re just not from an era that has much in common with the world Taika Waititi tries to conjure up for our delectation and amusement in this here flick Boy.

Set and filmed in Waihau Bay, which is on the East Cape, south-east of Auckland on the North Island, Boy is also set in the heady days of the 1980s, 1984 to be exact. Boy himself (James Rolleston) greets us with a show-and-tell summary of his existence in this impoverished town, and his complicated family life, and all the things he loves or doesn’t love about his life.

The tone of the flick, like Boy himself, is light and funny. He’s a chatty and sweet boy, even if his introduction to us involves a fight with a vulgar schoolmate who taunts him over his mother’s death.

Boy lives with his brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) and a multitude of cousins on his grandmother’s farm, where they generally look after each other. When Boy’s grandmother leaves for a week to go to a funeral in Wellington, Boy and the other kids basically look after each other as best they can, which isn't that well.

The question as to where Boy’s parents are is answered fairly quickly: one’s in the grave and one’s in jail. Rocky mourns his dead mother the best he can, which is the best a seven-year-old could manage, though he has taken on a worrying belief that he possesses magical powers which were inadvertently responsible for his mother’s death. Boy bears some resentment towards Rocky, and it’s not clear why (allowing for the fact that most kids find their younger siblings annoying at the best of times). Mostly it seems like he dislikes Rocky for being fixated on the mother he never met, and for not holding the same delusions regarding their absent father.

Boy is a complete fantasist as well, passionately and cheerfully dreaming up all sorts of ludicrous scenarios that make his father eternally the hero of Boy’s imaginings. When his father actually does turn up, with two other crim friends, his whole world lights up with the possibilities now on offer. You see, as much as a shit-talker Boy is, his father is a shit-talker par excellence. When Alamein turns up (played by director Taika Waititi), you don’t, as a viewer, share Boy’s naivety. All the gifts Alamein and his scummy mates bring to give the family are clearly stolen, as is the wonderful Valiant they seem to have ‘found’ somewhere, which is started with a spoon.

The town where they live seems to be one of those familiar to viewers of NZ film’s regardless of the era setting, being a place where barely anyone works and the possibilities of work are non-existent. At the very least they show only three people that I can remember with a job (not counting the teacher who tells Boy he has potential).

And Boy certainly does have potential, but he misunderstands the word when he looks it up, and thinks of it as a quality that links him to his father. Still, it doesn’t stop him from dreaming of leaving their idyllic-in-retrospect life and moving to the city with a father who tells his eleven-year-old son that once he finds the ‘treasure’ he’s hidden on the property from prior to his prison stint that they’ll be wearing tuxedoes and riding dolphins at will.

I’m sure, to someone who hasn’t heard anything about the flick, this could all sound quite grim. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s neither completely a comedy or a drama, but it definitely has enough of both to be sweet and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s mostly a comedy, and a pretty funny one at that. It even perhaps veers too much into quirky comedy territory, so much so that it’s fairly reminiscent of a style of humour that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call Napoleon Dynamite-esque.

Or even, not to put too fine a point on it, the New Zealand version of Napoleon Dynamite that this same director was responsible for, being Eagle Vs Shark. Boy is a far more successful film, dealing as it does with characters that feel more real than just being an assembly of quirks and affectations. In most cases, it’s a delight listening to Boy, his friends and family discussing stuff in their supremely naïve way, with a hopeful optimism that is rarely if ever susceptible to cynicism.

It helps with the bits that are laugh-out-loud funny. The problem is, and this isn’t a problem in terms of the film being enjoyable, it’s just that there arises this requirement in the script for things to go a certain way in order to force some kind of resolution to the primary drama. That primary drama is that Alamein, who eventually decides he wants to be called Shogun, before deciding he wants to be called Busty St Clair (I might be making that one up), is a well-meaning fuck-up, who’s more incompetent than egomaniacal, but still a kind of danger to his sons.

The seriousness of this isn’t downplayed. Sure, it’s funny at first seeing him running with his delusions of grandeur, and playing games in a way that indicates at least that mentally, he’s not that much more grown-up than the kid who idolises him. The dilemma this presents for Boy is that if his father finds the money he’s after, he might not take him along, and that if he stays, his selfish courses of action might put them all in jeopardy.
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This isn’t dealt with in a serious tone with a serious manner. There are dramatically affecting scenes, but this shouldn’t at all be confused with something like Once Were Warriors. It’s not harrowing like that at all. It’s an entertainment, an often deliberately silly and hilariously over the top joyous way to spend an hour and a half, with a dramatic and heartfelt spine. Towards the end this flick nearly broke my goddamn heart, and it’s a credit to all involved that they were able to maintain the complicated balance required to pull such an act off.

There are too many scenes of people talking about Michael Jackson, dancing like Michael Jackson, or talking about how awesome ET is for this to be taken too seriously, but there’s enough other stuff to ground it in some kind of reality. The mother’s absence (which is admittedly a common movie trope) is handled deftly, as her memory and the longing she summons threads through much of the good and bad stuff that happens in the flick.

James Rolleston is superb as the title character, a kid so upbeat and clever (in an unschooled way) that I couldn’t help but be dragged along by his enthusiasm. His performance is completely unaffected, and doesn’t feel at all like a strain. For all that he is a wonderful boy, there’s a lot of stuff he does that’s particularly awful. His crush on an obnoxious girl called Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell) leads him to do and say some pretty awful stuff, as does his desire to endear himself to his dad by stealing dope from one of his friends, a girl who clearly cares for him more than Chardonnay ever will.

His delusion, which the father fosters, of being part of his father’s utterly moronic gang The Crazy Horses, makes him look sad, and I felt bad for him even as I was being irritated by some of the stuff he did. And the harshest moments for me were when he was running down his brother by calling him an ‘egg’ in a way that carried so much anger (as compared to the moment where he confronts his dickhead of a father towards the flick’s end). But still he remains a completely sympathetic figure, and a wonderful kid with an infectious lust for life.

Taika Waititi as the father is great as well. He’s a buffoon, but he plays it as a buffoon who has no idea how much of a dick he is. The silly stuff he does is fun, but he manages to carry the dramatic stuff as well, especially towards the end where the floor drops out of their castles in the sky.

I loved this flick, I’m not ashamed to say, and I forgive it many of its shortcomings because of and in spite of the fact that it moved me to tears at the end. There’s a reason why it’s become the most successful New Zealand film in New Zealand history, and it’s because it doesn’t pander to an international audience even as it appeals to one. It’s not a Oscar-bait prestige fest, and that’s even more endearing to me than you can possibly believe.

It deserves to be seen again, by thee, by me, and anyone else you care to think of, and not just Kiwis, for that matter.

8 times I’d tell you what I think about that, but it’s after 3.30, and I’m off the clock out of 10

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"We were, fair queen, two lads, That thought there was no more behind, But such a day tomorrow as today, And to be Boy eternal" - Winter's Tale, Shakespeare

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