In 1984 on the rural East Coast of New Zealand, Michael Jackson's Thriller is changing kids' lives. Boy (James Rolleston) is a dreamer who loves Michael Jackson. He lives with his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), a tribe of deserted cousins and his Nan (Mavis Paenga). Boy's other hero, his father, Alamein (Taika Waititi), is the subject of Boy's fantasies, and he imagines him as a deep sea diver, war hero and a close relation of Michael Jackson (he can even dance like him). In reality he's in jail for robbery. When Alamein returns home after 7 years, Boy is forced to confront the man he thought he remembered, find his own potential and learn to get along without the hero he had been hoping for.
Review by Louise Keller:
Outwardly simple, yet inwardly complex, this soulful coming of age debut feature from Taika Waititi is the tale of a young boy's harsh reality deflected by fantasy. Waitiki writes about what he knows - his own experiences - and we sense that element of truth through the writing. He also stars as the scene stealing wayward father Alamein, who aspires to be like Shogun (his own master), but is more often like The Hulk (out of control). It's an engaging film with unexpected humour and priceless vignettes, like the scene in which the film's 11 year old protagonist Boy (James Rollestone) shares his hopes and dreams with his attentive pet goat, Leaf. While much of the story appears light and funny, there's an ever-present undercurrent that canvases themes of hardship, loss, loneliness and rejection. It is that contrast that gives the film ballast as it takes us through a turbulent emotional experience.
Boy's reality is life in a ramshackle weatherboard house in New Zealand's remote and beautiful Waihau Bay, with his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) and a handful of young cousins, for whom he is responsible, while his grandmother is away. Boy is quick to colour his world the way he would like it to be. The fact that his father and Michael Jackson are Boy's two heroes is telling in itself. When Boy tells his classmates his father is out of town (but will be coming to take him to see Michael Jackson on stage), it is wishful thinking and bravado. How else can he impress Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), the girl with the seductive name?
I love the scene when Alamein (and his two jail-mate friends) drive into Boy's life and he and his brother meet their father for the first time. 'The presents' (in the boot of the car) are obviously hot. There is a simplicity and honesty about how the kids greet their long absent father, about whom they have fantasised. Life changes dramatically, with dreams about buried treasure, riding dolphins and sipping cocktails by swimming pools. Reality is digging holes in the paddock, being exposed to marijuana and booze and dragged into a tempestuous world of chaos.
Rollestone gives a wonderfully natural performance, as do all the kids, while Waititi is outstanding as the irrepressible, likeable would-be soldier, knight, warrior and renegade who uses everyone around him. The film's climax hits us quickly, when we least expect it as does the weight of Rocky's plight. Yet, Waititi manages to take us to that fork in the road where Hope is signposted, and all the while uplifted by the fantasy sequences, animated drawings and a Bollywood-like finish to lift our hearts.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Small countries seem to make some of the most 'concentrated' films; Denmark, Sweden, Japan ... New Zealand. Boy is a wonderful mix of elements, ranging from lighthearted character-based humour to profound drama, and studded with observational detail about human nature in general, via the cultural specificity of New Zealand's bi-racial society.
Boy has been spectacularly popular in New Zealand, connecting perfectly with its domestic audience; the essential truth of it, on every level, will no doubt ensure it connects in the wider world.
Boy (James Rollestone) is 11 going on 21, forced by circumstances (dead mother, absent father) to shoulder responsibilities quicker than he would normally. His father is his hero - not counting Michael Jackson - even though he has been away for most of his young life (or perhaps because of that) living a life of adventure. In Boy's imagination, at least. In reality he's been doing time.
We enter this world without rancour, though, as Boy (James Rolleston) and his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) play games and generally behave like boys. Both these child actors deliver characterisations that are superbly realised; so good are they we tend to forget this is a narrative drama not a doco. Also terrific is the writer/director Taika Waititi as their father, a young man far too immature to have had children - or to know what to do with them. Well meaning though he is at times, he lacks the skills of fatherhood - a theme echoed from other successful New Zealand films such as Once Were Warriors. A likeable larrikin, his shortcomings deprive both him as parent and his kids.
When the boys get their father back from jail, he is still an elusive figure in their lives as he shies away from the 'dad' handle and settles on Shogun, a title borrowed from the only book that he seems to have read. It reinforces his immaturity and his inability to carve out a place for himself, which of course rebounds on his family.
Despite the comic tone (for the most part), the film is nuanced and sensitive, deeply touching and engaging. Waititi inserts the occasional animated child drawing in an entertaining fashion, much like Aussie filmmaker Sarah Watt used this technique in Look Both Ways (2005), to illustrate a character's imagination or fantasy or portray a special moment.
When it turns darker, the drama of Boy's longing for a hero also turns dark, a sad commentary on today's world. But the realisation about his dad (the growing up) doesn't spoil Boy's outlook - it frees him, and gives us a wonderful ending.
First published in the Sun-Herald
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CAST: James Rolleston, Taika Waititi, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, RickyLee Waipuka Russell, Darcy Ray Flavell-Hudson, Ngapaki Emery, Mavis Paenga
PRODUCER: Ainsley Gardiner, Cliff Curtis, Emanuel Michael
DIRECTOR: Taika Waititi
SCRIPT: Taika Waititi
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Adam Clark
EDITOR: Chris Plummer
MUSIC: The Phoenix Foundation
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Shayne Radford
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 26, 2010