BOY (2010)

One-line review: This anonymous “boy’s” coming-of-age story is universal.

This is Taika Waititi’s second film, based on his Oscar-nominated short “Two cars one night, ” Although Waititi wrote Boy’s script before his first film, Eagle and the Shark, he decided to hold on to it after workshopping it at the Sundance Institute. It was a wise decision because when he returned to Boy’s script, he was a more confident filmmaker, and the results are there to see.     

Boy was a massive success in NZ, eclipsed only by Waititi’s later film “Hunt for the Wilderpoeple” (also reviewed here). Boy is not a classic but is eminently rewatchable, primarily because of Waititi’s tender script and the disarming performances of Boy (James Rolleston) and his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu). I say “tender” script because the film’s mood, although melancholy because of its commentary on poverty and other social ills in the Māori community, is constantly buoyed by the children’s playfulness. Even the adults are just bumbling idiots than mean.

The film, set in the early eighties, is about Boy, who lives with his grandmother, kid brother, and cousins. Boy’s mother died giving birth to his younger brother, Rocky, who thinks he is responsible because he has supernatural powers. The film begins with Boy’s grandmother going away for a week, leaving Boy in charge of the other kids, a job he takes seriously. Waititi says kids managing on their own was common when he was growing up. And, like in Boy, he realized early on that adults could not be trusted.         

Boy spends his days with his family and his close-knit group of friends, pining for his crush and making up stories with his best friend, his pet goat, Leaf. Presiding over Boy’s life is his idol, Michael Jackson, who, according to Boy, is visible even from space. Western audiences may think it is an overkill, but growing up in India, I can relate to what a phenom Michael Jackson was during the Thriller days. Boy’s other idol is his dad, whom he has not seen in years. For Boy, his dad is a superhero, second only to Michael Jackson. But in reality, his dad is in prison for drug-related offenses.   

Boy’s dad (Taika Waititi) lands up with two friends the same night his gran leaves. He is the epitome of cool as Boy imagined, groovy, drives a cool car, brings everyone fantastic presents, throws mean parties, and threatens Boy’s bullies. But Dad is actually there to find the bag of cash he buried somewhere on the property while being chased by cops before his arrest. Through a series of hard knocks, Boy realizes his dad is no superhero; he is just a weak junkie. But Boy keeps his father’s myth alive for his little brother. When you grow up with imaginary dads, why not have the best dad of them all?    

The movie’s appeal is its universal theme set confidently in a local NZ context and the nostalgia-inducing eighties when kids ran free. Māori kids waiting in cars while their parents gamble or do drugs seems common in NZ. Waititi made an ad about this with his future film’s star, Julian Dennison (see link below). The few shots of the landscape give you an idea of how cut off it is from the rest of the world, yet the kids are one with the land. 

Boy and Rocky’s performances are what elevate this small film to a social commentary. James Rolleston plays Boy with the initial wide-eyed admiration for his father that transforms into anger and finally into reconciliation. Although the film rests on his shoulders, his performance is light. You feel he is just being, and credit for this must also go to the director. Eketone-Whitu steals every scene he is in as the sweet and shy kid brother, who is yet no pushover. Waititi plays the dad with the right amount of swag: he is a man child befuddled by suddenly being a dad to two kids who seem more grounded than him.   

The back stories of films are often as interesting as the film. In Boy’s case, Rolleston was initially cast as an extra and got the lead role a couple of days before shooting began. Waititi’s initially cast Boy several months before the shoot started. But that kid hit puberty in the meantime and was not the Boy Waititi envisioned when they were ready to make the film. The original Boy also appears in the film as Boy’s friend, Kingi, and you will know what I mean. Similarly, Eketone-Whitu, who plays Rocky, was only six during the shoot and was signed up for an audition at school by his aunt, who was also his teacher.

It is the details that make the film special. Even the irresponsible dad is not all bad; he feels genuine remorse, says I love you to his son, and does not hit back when his son hits him. Instead, he finishes a wooden carving for his son. In another poignant scene, although surrounded by adults, only his little brother understands Boy’s grief about his pet goat. Or the scene where Boy, despite his pain, stops Rocky from helping him dig because he’s too young for physical labor. These keen touches can come only from the pen of a sensitive soul, aka the flamboyant Mr. Waititi.        

Why watch it? To be part of the lovable Boy’s journey of growing up.

(Interesting article on the Boy cast reunion after a decade)

(Waititi’s ad with Julian Dennison) 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *