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New Zealand has always had a thriving local film industry, even before interest in Peter Jackson brought special attention to the land where the kiwis come from. One of the brightest success stories of the new millennial decade is Taika Waititi, a comedian, actor and director whose short subject Two Cars, One Night received an Academy Award nomination. Waititi's 2010 feature Boy is a funny, warm-hearted story about a spirited kid with a Maori background, finding his way through a very unusual childhood. Director Waititi is half Maori, half Jewish, and for part of his career used his mother's surname Cohen. In Boy he plays the major role of an irresponsible but charming father.
It's 1984. "Boy" (James Rolleston) lives on Waihau Bay, a beachside paradise but also an economic backwater. Granma looks after six children due to absentee parents; Boy's father Alamein (Taika Waititi) is in prison and his mother died in childbirth bearing Boy's brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu). The kids have decent clothes and attend a school with caring teachers but otherwise must fend for themselves. Boy and Rocky walk the road to the general store where the lady in charge fends off requests for free treats by holding up a sign reading "no". Boy is small but possessed of a big imagination; he daydreams heroic roles for his father and fights anybody who mentions that his father is a jailbird. Young Rocky is a budding artist, and seemingly more serious: he has the notion that he 'killed' his mother. There's so little adult supervision that Granny simply leaves the brood alone to drive to attend a funeral. Boy does the cooking and the others more or less look after themselves. Then Boy's dreams are answered when Alamein comes home, accompanied by two cronies. The ragged Alamein is uninterested in work and considers himself a free spirit. Although he takes no responsibility for his family, he enjoys basking in Boy's worship. With Alamein around, Boy no longer has problems with bullies. He gets to ride in his dad's car, and listen intently while Alamein relates more self-aggrandizing stories. Only slowly does Boy begin to figure out that his father is less than perfect. Alamein and his buddies have returned for another purpose altogether -- to find and recover a stash of money they buried in a field, exactly where they can't remember. They spend their days digging holes and their nights getting drunk.
Director Waititi has a bright, unique film in Boy. The performances he's elicited from his child actors are truly remarkable. Whether obtained by coaching or psychological manipulation, the behaviors and attitudes of the half-wild kids of Waihau Bay never strike a false note. James Rolleston's Boy is a bundle of ambition and frustration. Desperate to be 'special', he idolizes Michael Jackson, but his best imitations of Jackson's dance moves fail to impress the girls at school. Alamein's arrival gives Boy a big lift in spirits, even if dad clearly fails to live up to his daydreams. Boy is surrounded by beer and pot, which all the kids know is being grown in the middle of a local cornfield, but he doesn't partake much of either. As somebody warns him, "You'll end up like all the dope heads around here, laughing at nothing and crying at everything." Boy is a fully rounded personality, immature in many ways and wildly erratic when it comes to his self-image. But he also seems to have more going for him than his slacker of a father, a guy who clearly lost his way after the death of his wife. Alamein throws an infantile tantrum when Granny turns down his pleadings for more money.
Waititi's directing style is bright and creative. The image pops in and out of Boy's imaginary daydream life, in which his father becomes a soldier, a scuba diver or a superhero, anything but a convict. Seeing Alamein dead drunk, Boy prefers to imagine him dressed as the ultimate hero, Michael Jackson. For Boy's fantasies, director Waititi restages the music video "Beat It", with Alamein defeating an entire rival gang. The added wrinkle of Maori war chants is pretty amusing. Boy's memories of his mother are much more intense, especially her home-delivery death with Alamein collapsing at the foot of her bed. Rocky's daydreams are illustrated with animations of his own crayon drawings. When a bus passes on the road, Rocky imagines it crashing in a Crayola disaster. Rocky feels differently about his dad -- his animated version of Alamein's homecoming is of scary eyes emerging from the darkness.
Almost every scene in Boy is a special highlight. Boy confides in his barnyard friend, a white goat that figures strongly in the resolution of the buried loot subplot. Boy's idea of a good date is to invite his dream girl Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell) to sit in his father's parked car, but he ruins the moment by talking dirty to her, as a friend had suggested. Boy expresses his unhappiness by putting all the doorknobs in Granny's house into the microwave. The local kids taunt a mentally challenged man who lives under a bridge, but Boy eventually makes contact with him. When Alamein takes his boys to the beach to play, Waititi captures the sheer joy of the outing.
Boy maintains an off-balance quality in that we're constantly asking ourselves how much danger these kids are really in. Alamein gives Boy a horrendous haircut, which by season's end still hasn't grown out. And the little kids' arms and backs are defaced with real tattoos that are more like scribbling than body art. Boy "grows" in that he learns to see Alamein as he really is, but the movie doesn't treat the news as a traumatic disillusionment. Waititi chooses instead to end his picture with yet another of Boy's happy daydreams: the entire cast joyfully performing Michael Jackson's Thriller dance, with big smiles on their faces.
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray of Boy is a beautiful HD transfer of this extremely attractive picture, which we're told was a huge success in New Zealand. The seaside locations are almost too beautiful to be real. The one drawback for American audiences will be the lack of English subtitles -- I followed the movie well and enjoyed the dialect, but fully understood only about 70% of what was spoken. Even when everyone speaks English, ordinary audiences require 'crutch' subs for localized accents.
Taika Waititi demonstrated his great skill with child actors in his 2003 short subject Two Cars, One Night, included as an extra. A nine year-old boy meets a twelve year-old girl when they're both left in cars parked side by side outside a bar. Their cute interaction has an American Graffiti feel -- New Zealand may be far away but the experience is universal. A lengthy assemblage of interview material gives us an opportunity to see the filmmakers and actors out of character. The boys are charmers and Waititi seems a very happy fellow. The original trailer captures the film's carefree spirit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Boy Blu-ray rates:
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