The year is 1984, and 11-year-old Boy (James Rolleston) welcomes us into his “interesting world” as he stands before his classmates and recounts who he is, what he likes (Michael Jackson), and who he shares his life with. There’s Nan (Mavis Paenga), cousins Miria, Kiko, Che, Hucks and Kelly, Aunty Gracey (Rachel House) who’s a tennis coach, the “mailman”, school bus driver and manager of the local shop; a pet goat named Leaf and a six-year-old brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu). Rocky thinks he has superpowers. Bless him, he doesn’t.
Boy’s interests include art (cue desk graffiti), social studies (getting picked on by older boys) and Michael Jackson. His other idol is his father, Alamein (Taika Waititi), a master carver, deep sea treasure diver, captain of the rugby team and holder of the record for punching people out with a single fist. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth but in Boy’s world, reality isn’t really the mainstay, he is a kid after all.
After Nan leaves to attend a funeral, he’s the man of the house and so he ensures all the younger children wash, eat and generally thrive, until Alamein Sr returns to Waihau Bay, fresh out of prison, seeking a “treasure” he buried in the field opposite the house. It gives him the perfect opportunity to reconnect with his estranged sons as long as they stop calling him Dad… it’s “weird”. Boy, initially thrilled by his father’s return, soon comes to the painful realisation that his father isn’t the hero he imagined. In complete contrast, Rocky’s reluctance to accept the man he has never known comes full circle and his doubt and suspicion turns to respect. The moment all three boys reach the point of transformation is a deeply moving and beautiful thing, and harks back to that opening quote perfectly – “You could be happy here… we could grow up together” (E.T., 1982).
Boy is a thematically rich film and one which comments upon rurality, poverty, childhood, adulthood and grief while using magical realism, animation, mythology and a free-spirited style which also incorporates intertextuality and 80s popular culture to bring Waititi’s approach to identity and masculinity to the screen. That very specific form and unique Aotearoa voice has been so prevalent since those couple of Taika-written and directed episodes of Flight of the Conchords.
While including visuals of the sublime landscape, hostile terrain and open roads that have long been associated with New Zealand cinema, Waititi also gives us a Māori film rich in culture and beautiful hues of colour via a nostalgic trip to the eighties. The absentee father within a Māori family is just one of the thematic links Boy has to Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002), however, here the comedy and pathos, drama and fantasy is – as one has come to expect following Eagle vs. Shark (2007), What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) – charmingly measured.
Rolleston is wonderful in the titular role, however, one can’t help but fall in love with the largely mute and thoughtful, cape-wearing Rocky as both boys shine in this endearing and magical coming-of-age drama. Waititi is equally adorable as the misunderstood big boy of the trio, Alamein, a man who has yet to truly face his responsibilities or fully embrace adulthood but whose little men will help him pull his socks up. Boy is a big-hearted film – possibly even Waititi’s finest – poignant, funny, an effortless joy. Oh, and that Haka hybrid is genius.