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It would be a fairly safe guess that a semi-autobiographical movie based on the childhood of Taika Waititi, writer/director of the off-the-wall HBO series, Flight of the Conchords, might itself be somewhat offbeat.  What one might not expect from that film, simply titled Boy, is how refreshingly original, charming and surprisingly emotional it is.

New Zealand, 1984; even in the boondocks, the Kiwis are all atwitter about the ensuing world domination of American pop star, Michael Jackson.  Boy, a young Maori lad idolises the singer and pastes drawings of his hero’s likeness all around the home he shares with his little brother, Rocky, and assorted cousins.  The house is full of children without a mother or father in sight, only an elderly grandmother long past the years when she should be raising anyone’s kids.  Boy’s mother passed away while giving birth to Rocky and their father may or may not be in jail.  Boy’s imaginative version of his father’s fate as a dashing outlaw on the lam is far more exciting than the all-too mundane reality that he, like so many other Maori fathers, is absent from his children’s lives because he is locked up.  Both brothers find their fantasy worlds far more engaging places than their dreary, rural small town where everyone’s dirt poor and seems to be distantly related to everyone else.  Boy awaits the day his dad, Alamein will return; he’s got a sign ready and everything.  He can’t know how Alamein’s unexpected homecoming will turn his world upside down as his father arrives with two prison mates in tow to dig up his old mum’s field for a sack of money he hid years ago.  At first, Boy is thrilled to have Alamein back, and encourages the introspective Rocky to interact with the dad he never knew.  Rocky is hesitant because Alamein is a virtual stranger and the child fears his father blames him for his mother’s death.  Not quite as beguiled by Alamein’s flamboyant return, the younger son is a bit more suspect of his dad’s activities, including his continual drug use and offhand treatment of Boy, who worships the prodigal dad.  Alamein has managed to convince Boy that as soon as the money is discovered, they will live in a mansion with a swimming pool and have monkeys and llamas like Michael Jackson.  In return, Boy will do anything to please his father, including betraying a friend which brings about unexpectedly painful results for Alamein and his “gang” of two mates, who quickly abandon their “leader” and show him up as a powerless fool in front of his children.

If Boy had been a documentary, it would bring its viewers to tears.  The story of young, underprivileged children left to run wild all over an impoverished town, without a parent in sight could be potentially heartbreaking.  Some kids harvest marijuana to make a living, some are in lingering pain over the loss of a deceased mother with only a deadbeat dad out in the world somewhere and there’s at least one whose best friend is a goat.  In Taika Waititi’s deft hands, these melancholy ingredients become the basis for a gently rendered, genuinely touching and inconceivably hilarious film about growing up.  Waititi balances broad humour as with the many disgraces of Alamein {Played by Waititi} and his moronic mates; his attempt to defend his son against bullies and s demonstration of how to enter a car the “cool” way.  There’s the bittersweet laughs of Boy’s drawings that come to life onscreen of his fantasy dad and the amazing life they’ll be living once the money’s found, complete with tuxedos, mansions and swimming pools.  Waititi gives us the cruelty of dawning pubescence as Boy blindly ignores the adoring Dynasty (often seen with her sister, Falcon Crest), cruelly favouring the more mature, Chardonnay.  We simultaneously laugh and cringe as Boy tries and fails to impress his crush at school with some Michael Jackson dance moves that could use a bit more practice.  The director also hints at how Boy will grow up to be many times the man his father is by showing us the child’s real concern for his withdrawn little brother, who spends most of his free time at their mother’s grave and later with the local scary guy, who, in his way, is just as isolated as Rocky.  The shattering of Boy’s illusions about his father is inevitable because Alamein is purely a loser.  Alamein is an irresponsible manchild who never took the reins of being a real parent to his sons after his wife’s death.  Even after returning home from prison, he doesn’t want his boys to call him “Dad,” preferring the name “Shogun” after finding a dusty copy of the James Clavell novel in the garage.  Being so absent from their lives, there was no solid foundation on which Boy could build the image of his dad, so why not make him a superhero?  Alamein is as far from a hero as one can get and a continual source of disappointment to his kids from the moment of his arrival.  When Boy does finally see his father for what he is, it’s dramatic and cathartic.

No aspect of the film works without its two amazing leads; James Rolleston as Boy and Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, as thoughtful little bro, Rocky.  The performances of these boys in this film are awards-worthy; so rare and flawlessly natural that I can’t imagine what this movie would’ve been without them.  There is never a precocious or false note to their acting and it’s particularly significant with Eketone-Whitu, whose Rocky is drenched in a sadness beyond his years and says very little, but is completely sweet and genuine.  When I asked director Waititi about casting the boys, he said neither child had ever acted before.  I‘m convinced their vibrance and authenticity is something he could never have found with professional child actors.  All the children in the film have an unspoiled quality that suits the hardscrabble characters they have to play.  Understanding their roles might not have been a particular stretch as all the kids grew up in the same town as Waititi, and according to him, there’s not terribly much of a difference in the living conditions there now as from nearly thirty years ago. That unfortunate fact works in the movie’s favour as it’s exactly the children’s realness and innate charm, combined with Waititi’s wonderful script that strikes the perfect balance of pathos, ingenuity and hilarity that makes Boy so original and such a delight.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 2nd, 2012

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Paladin Films)

 

 

 

 

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