Boy an Offbeat (and uneven) Delight

BOY (2010)
Directed by Taika Waititi
New Zealand Film Commission, 88 minutes, in Maori and English

* * *

The lovable James Rolleston in the title role of this offbeat New Zealand film. 

1984 turned out to be the year the world danced to Michael Jackson’s Thriller  instead of cowering in fear from the arrival of George Orwell’s dystopia. Jackson eventually became a self-parodying cartoon character dogged by allegations of drug use, pedophilia, and botched plastic surgery, but in 1984 his dance moves and cultural clout made him an inspiration to people of color around the globe. Even impoverished Māori kids in a remote New Zealand pa (village) knew of Michael.

Or perhaps I should say especially Māori kids. The early 1980s were an important time for Māori identity. By then, protest movements aimed at reversing second-class citizenship had begun to bear fruit. North Americans generally know little about events and agreements such as the 1971 Waitangi Day protest, the 1975 Land March, the Waitangi Tribunal, or the 1981 Springbok protest, but each was a signal event for Māori wishing to claim their place at the New Zealand table. Think of the 1980s as akin to the sort of racial awakening experienced by African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, or the Négritude movement among French-speaking colonials.

Do you need to know any of this to appreciate Boy, a film that had the highest opening gross of any New Zealand-made film in the nation’s history? It wouldn’t hurt, but you could just enjoy it as a quirky coming-of-age film in the tradition of Whale Rider (2002). Boy isn’t as polished, gripping, or packed with symbolism as Whale Rider but it is, in places, wildly imaginative, offbeat, funny, and poignant. Boy, its eponymous central character, is an eleven-year-old who lives amidst the stark contrasts of the storied beauty of the New Zealand coastline and the grinding poverty of the pa. Things are changing, but mostly on the inspirational level rather than the material. People in the pa are more likely to sport names such as Rocky, Chardonnay, Dallas, Weirdo, or Ju Ju as anything traditional, and they speak Māori as their second language; after all, the schools, TV shows, and advertisements are in English. Like kids everywhere, Māori youngsters live in a world that’s shaped as much by pop culture and fantasy as by reality. Boy’s brother Rocky, for instance, thinks he has superpowers, though they’re defective and only occasionally work. He also draws his sorrows–including the fact that his mother died giving birth to him–and those drawings (and Boy’s imagination) come to life–one of the film’s more clever devices.

Boy and Rocky live with a herd of cousins with their grandmother–Dad was sent to prison for petty theft when each was too young to remember him clearly, but not long ago enough to prevent Boy from constructing fanciful images of the old paterfamilias. The film follows a single week, when Gran leaves the kids alone to attend a funeral and Alamein, the father, unexpectedly appears at the pa. How much damage can he do in a week? Quite a lot as it turns out. Alamein–named for a World War II battle and played by director Taika Waititi–is a perpetual adolescent. He dresses like a mash between Super Fly and a dime-store Michael Jackson, and fancies himself the leader of Crazy Horse, a two-person posse that’s possibly the most incompetent group of criminals in New Zealand history. Alamein has enough flash to dazzle amidst the poverty of the pa and to give a to Boy glimmer of exotic hope, but he lacks the intellect or substance to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes for very long.

The film’s strengths are its fine performances, especially by the thoroughly lovable James Rolleston in the title role, and of Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu as younger brother Rocky. Waititi is also delicious fun as the father–who wouldn’t love getting to chew as much scenery as he does? Like Waititi’s previous film Eagle vs. Shark  (2007), the movie’s plot can best be described as a likable, often predictable mess punctuated by periods of occasional genius. I’ll merely note that a goat, a village idiot, an offbeat aunt, buried loot, and marijuana factor in. For all of the film’s obvious flaws, it is often reach-for-the-tissues sad, laugh-out-loud hysterical, and thought provoking. Moreover, it’s the best kind of coming-of-age film in that it offers no easy answers or cheap resolutions, but leaves you with just enough insight into Boy and Rocky to give you hope that they will escape both Jackson’s 1984 and Orwell’s. --Rob Weir  

No comments: