The world revolving around the titular character of Taika Waititi’s BOY is indeed a fascinating place and audiences are invited to immerse themselves in it from that initial, exuberant reception. But as the film progresses, Boy’s cinematic world evolves to metaphorically mirror any one of our own intriguing, often dysfunctional realities.
Set in a 1984 rural Maori town on New Zealand’s east coast, the film effortlessly blends understated, self-aware comedy, gut-wrenching drama and a few choreographed dance breaks for good measure. Though it’s inextricably linked to a specific time and place, however, BOY effectively transcends culture, era and genre to convey what it means to grow up, anywhere, at any age.
BOY’s cast of characters, both real and imagined, is at the core of the film’s enchanting, engaging world. Boy lives in a rundown house along with his Nan, a flock of orphaned cousins, and his younger brother Rocky, who insists his untamed supernatural powers killed their mother during childbirth.
“I really love films about underdogs who have very small moments of triumph and positive development, but remain underdogs,” Waititi, writer, director and costar, writes via email while preparing for the film’s March 2 New York premiere.
To get through the everyday chaos of home and the stress of school bullies, Waititi’s main character fantasizes about his two greatest heroes: his dad and Michael Jackson. The lines delineating the two obsessions often blur and Boy envisions his long-lost father lighting up the sidewalk ‘Billie Jean’-style, or channeling Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ persona by rocking a leather jacket and battling a gang of bad guys. But when his father, Alamein, returns home after a stint in prison, it quickly becomes clear how woefully short he falls of his son’s fantasies. As Boy grapples with the dissonance between his dream world and real world, his budding wisdom compels viewers to question which juvenile character truly has the growing up to do.
While heavy themes of familial drama and lost innocence anchor the film, BOY is anything but melancholy. Waititi’s subtle, quirky humor, as evidenced by the socially awkward romance of his 2007 comedy Eagle vs. Shark, pervades every scene in BOY. “It was a long process balancing the tones of the film,” Waititi says. “The original script was very dramatic; it could have gone to Cannes if I had killed the children or made them diamond miners. But my sensibility is rooted in comedy which is why it had to become a mix of light and dark. In that way it becomes more human, more real. Life is always a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, it’s never always a barrel of laughs and never completely depressing. Unless you’re a diamond mining kid.”
Incessant Napoleon Dynamite comparisons plagued the popular Eagle vs. Shark, but BOY’s dark comedy comes across as refreshingly unique and heartfelt. As the circumstances surrounding Boy’s relationship to his father turn grim, the film’s unfailingly upbeat tenor provides welcome relief and joy, especially during otherwise somber scenes. In a rare vulnerable moment, Alamein climbs up to Boy’s window one night for a sincere, albeit stiff apology. The momentary tenderness is quickly broken, however, when the father nonchalantly mumbles “Love you, see you.” The film’s farcical tone resumes as the camera then pans down to show Alamein gingerly hop off the shoulders of the amiable pal who’d been silently propping him up the whole time. The friend cheerfully chirps, “All good, bro?” and the two merrily exit the frame. Moments of levity and absurdity like this balance the film’s often-intense subject matter and reflect Waititi’s sharp, trademark style.
Waititi not only wrote and directed BOY, but plays the role of Alamein flawlessly, in the company of an equally talented cast. James Rolleston infuses the part of Boy with so much genuine naïveté and wide-eyed optimism in the film’s early scene, that watching the character’s progressing maturity and cynicism is excruciating. Te Aho Eketone Whitu is perhaps the film’s standout star in the role of Boy’s brother, Rocky. His sincerity and sweetness (“I have to watch out for my powers,” he says. “My brother says that’s how my mum died, because my powers were too strong when I was getting born.”) are at once heartbreaking and uplifting.
The relationships between the boys and their estranged father, as well as their rapport with tangential characters come across as astonishingly authentic. Waititi’s script, which was accepted into the 2005 Sundance Writer’s Lab, an intensive workshop for independent screenwriters, is solid on its own, but the capabilities of the cast and the chemistry among actors truly sets the film apart.
New Zealand critics and audiences seem to agree that BOY is uniquely superb. The film smashed box office records, becoming the country’s highest grossing movie of all time.
“We are inundated with American films and sometimes it can be hard to make something original that isn’t derivative,” Waititi says. “So to be able to retain your vision and make a film about native kids living in the middle of nowhere in the 1980s, and to have people go and see it multiple times to the point where it becomes part of the national experience, well that’s not too shabby at all. Personally, it’s like having someone say ‘Hey, the stuff you do, it’s good.’ That’s about the level of praise we give each other in New Zealand.”
Though the film doesn’t hit select U.S. theaters until next month, American reviewers have already had mixed reactions. Many have said the eccentric, self-deprecating humor, characteristic of many New Zealand comedies, doesn’t translate in the States. While others, like Variety’s Peter Debruge, complain Waititi has “scrubbed away all culturally specific traits from his growing-up-Kiwi comedy.”
But BOY’s charm is hardly contingent on its ties to Kiwi culture. While there are certainly a number of tongue in cheek, insider references to New Zealand life, and specifically to growing up as a member of the indigenous, Maori population, they don’t in any way detract from the film’s global relevance. Criticizing BOY for its inclusion or omission of cultural elements entirely misses the point of the movie’s far-reaching potential.
Regardless of its cultural specificity (or, according to Debruge, lack thereof), BOYtells a universal story that doesn’t and shouldn’t depend on geographic location or nationality. Asked what he fears most about showing his film abroad, Waititi answers, “America is a dangerous place so my biggest fear is that the film might get mugged or fat. Apart from that I hope audiences understand our quaint New Zealand accents. I’m looking forward to hearing how people liked BOY, a film from England. I’m joking.”
Momentarily putting all jokes aside, he adds, “I don’t have any real fears, I know this is a great movie that connects with a large audience.”
Image via boythefilm.com.