“Boy” is an appealing film and an arresting look into another time and place, so it’s a shame it relies heavily on coming-of-age cliches to tell it’s story. Never fear, though- despite the feeling of been-there done-that that pervades this feature, “Boy” has charm and sweetness to spare, and is worth watching despite it’s rather standard execution.
At the center of this sentimental picture is an 11-year-old Maori lad (James Rolleston) who calls himself ‘boy.’ Boy’s life is far from carefree- he lives in poverty, the responsibility of his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone Whitu) and his cousins often fall into his hands, he is besieged by bullies at school, and the girl (Ricky-Lee Waipuka Russell) he likes doesn’t know he exists. But he approaches his challenges with a freshness and active fantasy life that belies the direness of his situation.
Boy is surrounded by quirky and hardscrabble characters, not least of which is his shy brother, who believes he has superpowers. While Boy’s grandmother is out at a funeral and entrusting his multitude of relatives to him for a couple of weeks, Boy’s biological father Alamein (actor/director Taika Waititi) comes crashing into his life. Boy is entranced by his charming dad, despite the man’s ne’er do well ways and gang affiliations.
Anyone but Boy can see that Alamein is a worthless chode, so it just becomes a waiting game until the big reveal where Boy realizes it too. Meanwhile, Alamein and his equally useless friends start digging for a stash of money they buried years ago. Alamein seems caring and paternal on the surface (at least to a naive kid in desperate need of a father figure like Boy,) but in reality he is concerned with people only to the point that they serve his best interests.
The child actors perform admirably (you can keenly see the pain in Boy’s eyes when his dad hauls off and slaps him,) and the crayon ‘fantasy’ sequences add a little originality to a mostly tired plot. It actually works better in terms of story that Boy is not always a boy scout even before his father comes into the picture and changes his attitude for the worse- he torments his brother and hurls rocks at the village idiot (Waihori Shortland,) but for the most part his intentions seem to be good.
Taika Waititi does an effective job as Alamein, playing the somewhat tired character of the charming rogue with big plans and no backing-up of his multitude of promises. You kind of want to like him despite the obvious signs that he’s bad business, and you could see how an inexperienced child might be sucked into his high-wire act way of life. But it’s also bitterly clear that he’s bad business for Boy. As Boy spends more and more time with Alamein, feeding off his manic energy, Boy’s brother and cousins go without the much-needed care and concern of their young caregiver. It’s just a matter of time until something gives, and with Alamein’s unreliable ways that shift will be sooner rather than later.
There are multiple Michael Jackson fantasy dance scenes (the year is 1984, and Boy is a massive fan of the Jackster,) and they fit into the narrative more than they probably should- the movie is a surprisingly cohesive mix of laughter and sadness, fantasy and harsh reality. It’s frustratingly predictable, but also solidly sweet, charming, and well-acted, with a steady combination of nostalgia and hard times.
I can definitely see the kid actors going somewhere, and “Boy” has an abundance of warm feelings that help it through it’s more so-so parts. We know that Boy will reject his dad’s false promises and that he will give up pursuing his crush to be with the girl who’s loved him all along, triggering an inevitable coming-of-age, but it’s nice to take the journey nonetheless.