Practically everyone we’ve talked to in New Zealand has insisted that we watch the movie Boy as soon as possible. It seems to be universally beloved, and after we finally got the chance to see it a couple of nights ago, it’s not hard to understand why.
Boy is narrated by an 11-year old Maori kid named Alamein who goes by the nickname “Boy.” The year is 1984; the location, the Bay of Plenty region on the North Island. Boy idolizes Michael Jackson and has a crush on a girl named Chardonnay at school. What he wishes for most, though, is for his absentee father, also named Alamein, to come back into his life. Boy gets his wish, but things turn out to be more complicated than he imagined.
Alamein, Boy’s father, is a bit of a wildcard. He’s delusional about his own importance and grandeur, and casts himself as the fearless leader of his own gang, The Crazy Horses. Unfortunately, his sometimes sweet demeanor is overshadowed by a quick temper and fondness for marijuana. He gets along well with Boy at first — so desperate is Boy to have a father figure in his life — but is somewhat cruel to his younger son, Rocky.
Boy is essentially a portrait of life in a small Maori town in New Zealand. Countless issues are dealt with in the film, from poverty to pop culture and death to daydreaming. A strong sense of humor runs through the movie, even in some of its most dramatic scenes — Boy often imagines that his father defeats his foes with sweet Michael Jackson dance moves. The kids in the town are always vying for ice lollies at the local superette, and parental figures are, for the most part, absent. It is, to say the least, a self-aware illustration of many of the issues that plague the socioeconomically disadvantaged Pacific Islander population in New Zealand.
Directed by Taika Waititi, a New Zealand filmmaker and actor (who also plays Boy’s father to magnificent comedic effect), Boy is most notable for its incredible genuineness. It lacks the unwelcome pretension of Richard Linklater’s similarly named Boyhood, which is also intended to be an archetypal portrait of life growing up in the United States. Where Boyhood falls flat, Boy excels; the former is accurate, yes, but also overdone and overblown, a deliberately-constructed epic. Boy, meanwhile, doesn’t attempt to exaggerate its own importance; it’s much shorter, but ultimately sweeter and more meaningful, and doesn’t leave you with a hollow feeling.
Boy is only the second film from Taika Waititi, though you can also catch him as an effeminate vampire in the near-perfect satire What We Do in the Shadows. New Zealand may not produce a large volume of films, as least not compared to powerhouses like the United States, but when they do, they are often of top quality (Whale Rider, Heavenly Creatures, LOTR trilogy, etc.). Boy is that rare mixture of charm, humor, sweetness, and gravity wrapped together with impeccable timing and intersecting issues. I’ve now joined in the clarion call: You have to see it.
Overall grade: A