1984, and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ is sweeping the world, including in a small ramshackle village in New Zealand. There, living with his grandmother, a younger brother and several cousins, we meet Boy. He’s about nine or ten years old, I’d guess. His younger brother, Rocky, is six and thinks he has super-powers. Boy has no such illusions about himself, but instead invents (and truly believes) fanciful stories about his absent father who is either a master carpenter, a decorated soldier, a deep sea treasure diver, captain of a rugby team or knockout-punch boxer, depending on which day it is. He has a friend called Dallas, who has two sisters, Dynasty and Falcon Crest.
Boy’s grandmother is called away to attend a funeral, leaving Boy (James Rolleston) to look after the rest of the family until his father arrives. The father, you may not be surprised to know, is none of those things listed above. Instead, he’s a small-time criminal recently released from jail. On his last job he managed to at least bury some cash in a field near the house and has now returned to get it, and to see his kids for the first time in years.
So begins a delightful comedy-drama from New Zealand, and it’s an absolute joy. Boy starts as an out-and-out comedy with some very funny moments, and touching ones too. Writer/director Taika Waititi also stars as Alamein, the father, and tries to be a father to Boy but fails miserably. However, Boy’s imagination is such that he sees his father as a hero no matter the situation, and Waititi joyously provides some inspired moments; a gang-fight mapped out like a Thriller video, for example, or the fact that he needs a spoon to start the car he’s so obviously stolen. The father and the two sons take a bonding trip to the beach, and it’s clear that he’s more of a child than either of the two young souls as he races up and down the dunes pretending he’s a soldier. Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), it should be pointed out, is not as enamored of his father as Boy is. The boys’ mother died giving birth to Rocky, you see, and he’s blamed himself ever since. Boy told him once that their mother couldn’t handle his super-powers when she delivered him, and the idea remained in his head.
If the first half of the movie is joyous, the second half sobers up. Boy begins to see his father for who he really is and his illusions are shattered. We get a feeling for the first time, that this dysfunctional family tale may not have a happy ending after all. Alamein clearly is not cut out for father material and is, in fact, planning on leaving just as soon as he finds his stolen loot and even utilizes the eager Boy to help him dig the field up in order to do so. Boy borrows his father’s leather jacket to look cool in front of the other kids but instead is humiliated when his father strips him of it in plain view of the others. It’s an uncomfortable watch.
Director Waititi, as opposed to actor Waititi, uses sporadic cartoon imagery to help the story along. This provides both hilarious and thought-provoking opportunities — watch, for example, the sentence Alamein spells out when writing a message using a firework sparkler — but it also helps us understand what is going through mixed-up Rocky’s head, something that not even his brother can see.
I thoroughly enjoyed Boy. The gags are funny, understated, and unconventional, and the story it tells is the universal one of a boy growing up and realizing that his father may not be the all-conquering hero he always imagined him to be.