Boy is a dreamer who loves Michael Jackson. He lives with his brother Rocky, a tribe of deserted cousins and his Nan. Boy's other hero, his father, Alamein, is the subject of Boy's fantasies, and he imagines him as a deep sea diver, ware hero and a close relation of Michael Jackson. In reality, he's "in the can for robbery". When Alamein comes home after seven years away, Boy is forced to confront the man he thought he remembered, find his own potential and learn to get along without the hero he had been hoping for.
Taika Waititi's Boy takes place during a lazy 1984 summer in the North Island’s Bay of Plenty, when Michael Jackson was at the height of his fame, having just moonwalked into the history books at the Grammys (i.e. long before the abuse accusations). 11-year-old Alamein/'Boy’ (James Rolleston) could just be the King of Pop’s biggest fan, and it helps that he bears a more than a passing resemblance to Boy’s own wayward dad (Waititi). The shadow of the mysterious Alamein Sr/’Shogun’ looms large in his son’s imagination, as we see in a series of imagined explanations for his extended absence. (In truth, the convicted thief has been in and out of Her Majesty’s finest correctional institutions for years).
"Boy contains very little 'quirk for quirk’s sake’."
Prone to tall stories and short tempers, Boy is widely regarded to be brimming with 'potential’ (not that he knows what that means). In this kids’-eye view of the world, teachers are useless once the bell rings and legal guardians are all but absent; Boy is installed as master of his own universe when his Nan is called away to a Tungi, and she leaves the 11-year-old in charge of his young brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whito) and a tribe of deserted cousins.
When the mysterious Alamein emerges from the shadows (bearing a swag bag of pre-loved gifts that are probably the subject of someone's insurance claim), Boy is forced to reconcile the man with the myth.
Boy is a faithful extrapolation of Waititi’s excellent short film Two Cars, One Night, a witty slice of understatement that centred on the pre-pubescent occupants of two cars in a pub car park. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 and though he was always intent on developing it into a feature, Waititi put the project off for a few years, and made the wise decision to cut his teeth with a longform project that wasn’t as close to his heart. (That honour fell to Eagle Vs. Shark, an awkward blend of romance and revenge fantasy, where copious amounts of 'quirk’ tried to bond together the competing story arcs).
Many elements of Boy’s dialogue and composition reference Two Cars but mostly, Waititi has translated both the elder brother’s puffed-up pride and penchant for storytelling, and the younger’s reserved reality checks, into a winning on-screen combination. Newcomers both, Rolleston and Eketone-Whitu expertly straddle the divide between fragility and evergreen optimism, to articulate the experience of the abandoned youngsters. Eketone-Whitu very nearly steals the film as the intense Rocky. Scarred by the knowledge that his mother died during childbirth, he reasons that her body was unable to withstand the strain of giving birth to a superhero, and resigns himself to a life of trying to use his powers for good rather than evil.
Boy contains very little 'quirk for quirk’s sake’ – and that’s no mean feat for a film that’s replete with 'nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ 80s nostalgia, music video recreations, and a key character who may or may not be a superhero. Whilst it’s easy to imagine some of the funnier lines delivered to a laugh track, Waititi weights down the whimsy by adding a provocative edge; when events conspire to make his dad behave in a manner unbefitting a Shogun, Boy retreats to lavish MJ-inspired dream sequences that restore the peace, and distract him from the casually shattering realisation that maybe, just maybe, his old man is not the heroic, deep-sea diving, back-up dancing, rugby ruck that he’s held him up to be all these years.
In accordance with the coming of age convention, Waititi sets his film at the crossroads of potential and disappointment, but unlike most, he refuses to pull his punches when the narrative calls for it. Instead, he cloaks the offending fist with a sequined glove.
Tuesday 18 January, 7:55pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
New Zealand, 2010
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: James Rolleston, Taika Waititi, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, Mavis Paenga