MovieJay Drinks In The Loveliness Of ‘Boy’
Everyone knows him as “Boy“. He’s a clever, plucky 11 year-old Maori kid with his head in the clouds and easily one of the most endearing characters you’ll meet at the movies this year.
It is 1984 in a small village near the Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s east coast.
It could not be any other era. Boy’s narration quickly alerts us to his infatuation with Michael Jackson; he then introduces us to his brother Rocky and their friends Dallas and his sisters Dynasty and Falcon Crest. For Canadians in attendance, they’ll get a kick out of the local woman who drives the school bus, delivers mail, and runs the little convenience shop in town. She’s the kid’s aunt, named Degrassi. When Boy asks her for some free candy, she’s quick to retort, “Get a job!”. “I can’t, you have them all!”, he complains.
The opening sequence also informs us that Boy and his brother live with their grandmother, who can be seen early on driving out of town for a week or so to a family funeral. Their father has been out of the picture for some time while their mother died giving birth to Rocky. In his imagination, Rocky’s got telekinetic powers that his older brother uses to guilt-trip him with, blaming him for not controlling them at birth, causing mom’s death.
More than any of the other kids around, Boy has adult responsibilities around the small farming land and it’s up to him to keep the house going in grandma’s absence.
Despite the desolate economic situation that is plain for us to see, as well as the tough family dynamic, Boy is a hopeful and resourceful kid with tons of affection in his heart. He idealizes three things: Michael Jackson, his father, and that girl in class named Chardonnay, who appears to ignore him. Exuberantly, the kid tells us his real name is Alamein: “I’m named after my dad. He’s named after where the mighty battalion fought in WWII”. When he’s through with killing baddies the world over, Boy insists that his father will come back to visit and take him to see Michael Jackson. Live.
When he tries to show Chardonnay that he’s got the moves like MJ, she finds his Moonwalk unspectacular. No matter, that doesn’t stop him from whispering telepathically to her in class and around town, “Look at meee…loook…at…meee!”.
There are moments involving Boy and his younger brother Rocky that are knowing and poignant of sibling relationships. He loves his brother and does not mistreat him, but when Boy gets into a melee with one of his peers, he takes his frustrations and feelings of inadequacy out on Rocky–whom he derides constantly by calling him an “egg”. I felt a tremendous sympathy for Rocky; he was taking the same shit I remember giving to my younger brother, usually for no other reason than to feel my own sense of power.
Up to this point, I felt a genuine giddiness with this little slice-of-life pic with its fresh characters and its sunny disposition. And then, night falls and headlights can be seen on the horizon. A car slowly creeps down the driveway. In a village this small, the boys’ faces should tip us off to who the owner of the car is, but they look on with blank stares. Who can it be? Boy comes around to the front of the house. The point of view shifts to within the car looking out at Boy.
I took myself from an easy slouch into full attention. For the first time since Boy has been put in charge of the house, we sense real danger. Boy steps up to the car and says hello. Inside are three men. “Hello, who are you?”, says the man closest to Boy. “I’m Boy…Alamein”. “Alamein, I’m your dad”, the voice says.
This information turns out to be true, but not before we continue to vet the elder Alamein’s face along with his two friends seated next to him, just to be sure. Turns out that dad really has come back, but not from killing bad guys, but because he’s been released from prison. He and his crew don’t appear to look older than 30ish.
We’re cynical of their intentions and before long we learn that dad has come home to hang around long enough to dig up some cash he buried in the yard. “It’s a precise number of feet from the fence post, but I forgot how many. And the post”, he mutters. He showers the boys with gifts that include a microwave oven that Boy mistakes for a TV set, along with sparklers–the kind you see in the hands of North American kids typically on the big holiday weekend in July.
Boy gets drunk off of his own idealism for his dad in moments like when the old man takes him out in his black mustang, which impresses Chardonnay. Rocky may be younger, but he looks upon his father with a more level gaze. When a man the boys run into often down by the river asks what their father is like, Rocky is quick to reply “loud”, referring to dad’s penchant for partying and carrying on late at night.
Taika Waititi plays the manchild with gusto, and he is also the writer and director of the picture. His name will be familiar to fans of his previous effort, the quirky cult hit Eagle vs. Shark. Others will know him for having directed more than a few episodes of The Flight of the Conchords. With Boy, he tempers indie quirkiness with real, perceptive human moments and touches of magic realism in a way that deeply involves us.
Newcomer James Rolleston is refreshing and intelligent as Boy, engaging us immediately with his big eyes and even bigger sense of hope. He leads practically every scene and when dad shows up that’s when this easy, breezy slice-of-life grows into a more thoughtful coming-of-age experience. Rocky sees his father for the manchild that he is, but it takes Boy longer to do so, and it happens organically throughout the film in little moments that finally crescendo to where Boy sheds his idealism and essentially becomes father to the man.
Boy is a wonderful, intelligent entertainment with universal appeal that left me hugging myself.
***½ (out of 4)