It is the 80s, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller album has infiltrated every corner of the globe, it seems, including the backwaters of New Zealand’s North Island. Boy (James Rolleston) is a Maori kid in early adolescence who idolises Jackson, inexpertly demonstrating his dance moves to underwhelmed peers at any opportunity. He lives in a dilapidated shack on a derelict farm with his gran, little brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), a clutch of cousins, and his pet goat and trusty confidante, Leif.
The two brothers are dreamers, but where Boy has created a comforting inner world populated by Thriller, escapist fantasies and an idealised vision of his father (who, in fact, is doing a lengthy stretch for armed robbery), Rocky’s is disturbed. Haunted by the knowledge that his mother died giving birth to him, he believes he has ‘powers’, which are cleverly depicted in animated drawings (and mostly destructive and vengeful in application).
Soon after the boys’ gran, who looks after them, is called away for a short period, their father, Alamein (Taika Waititi, who also wrote and directed the film), turns up with a couple of scaly mates, having been released from prison. Boy is overjoyed, but Alamein proves to be anything but a heroic figure. Thus begins a painful period of disillusionment for Boy, which fuels this coming-of-age tale.
Not the cheeriest setup, but Waititi has gone for a light treatment of some pretty heavy subject matter, with plenty of humorous touches – especially in the early part of the movie. I saw this one at a packed multiplex theatre with a large capacity and gigantic screen, which was a nice change from my usual arthouse haunts; it was sorta warming to be part of a big audience, and to experience the success of the movie’s comic touches in this mainstream arena.
However, while the quirky comedy stuff worked well initially, it detracted somewhat from the emotional impact of the piece as the story darkened. Boy’s gradual realisation that his father is a self-serving crim who hasn’t grown up, and poor little Rocky’s struggle with his terrible burden of guilt are inherently poignant, but are not as moving as they should be. There’s a Bollywood touch at the end that brings us full circle, restoring the fun and good humour that characterises the movie at its beginning – but the circle is far from perfect. It’s almost as if Waititi has shied away from the realities of the kids’ situation when it all got too serious for comedy in service of a prioritised agenda of leaving his audience feelin’ good about his movie. He has managed to do that, though, and the crowds have voted with their feet. Apparently this is the highest grossing Kiwi movie ever.
I don’t quite understand why this is such a runaway success. Sure, there’s lots to like. Plenty of funny lines. The gorgeous setting. The kids’ performances, in particular, are endearing. But all in all, I found Boy a bit insubstantial, especially in leaving the truly tragic figure of the piece, Rocky, labouring under the weight of his awful unresolved issues with his mother’s death. I did not depart the theatre quite as light of heart as many beaming members of the audience appeared to be.
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