Summer, 1984. That’s just a year after Michael Jackson’s Thriller becomes a worldwide musical sensation touching every corner of Planet Earth, including Waihau Bay, the sleepy seaside New Zealand town portrayed in the comedy-drama Boy.
Boy (James Rolleston) is a dreamy 11 year old who lives in a rickety residence with his grandmother, delicate younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), a nest of rascal cousins and the family goat. Beyond that, his daily life is saturated with a vivid imagination and idolization of the pop star MJ. Another of his idols? Alamein (played by writer-director Taika Waititi), his absentee father, who Boy has imagined to be a deep-sea diver, accomplished dancer who knows every move to “Billie Jean” and globetrotting adventurer, among other wild fantasies.
The hard reality, however, is Alamein is a recently released convict, whose been doing time for local theft and petty crimes. When he drops in on Boy’s home unexpectedly to dig up buried loot he hid in the backyard pre-incarceration, Alamein also inherits a week of quality time with his two sons. Now able to follow the man’s every move, Boy must come to terms with who his father really is, and Alamein with who he never was. While its title, Boy, is singular, it’s in fact about two: a son growing up in the shadow of a man who never completely did.
From the pitch-perfect performances by the young Maori leads and its understated attention to indigenous Island life, there’s a lot to love about Boy. The surprising Rolleston is a complete natural, wandering through the landscape’s rural 1980s with a timeless wide-eyed fearlessness, a Raukokore cousin to Truffaut’s iconic Antoine Doinel. Waititi also fully inhabits the character of Alamein, most notably with a forged machismo that speaks in ways to young fathers, and specifically to masculinity in native cultures, that’s truthful and refreshing.
And it’s when the two are together onscreen that Boy really charms, inviting audiences to bring with them their own experiences with parenting. In one particular gesture, Alamein reveals to his sons a chicken scratched swastika he penciled in a hidden spot of his childhood bedroom they never knew was there. “I did that,” Alamein says, half-smiling, only to casually cover the picture back up, look his kids straight in the eyes and deadpan, “Don’t get into Nazi stuff.” It takes me back to when my dad showed my brother and I where he scrawled our last name (and some choice swear words) into a wet sidewalk behind his high school’s baseball diamond when he was a teen…and then told us not to deface public property. A mix of nostalgia, cool disobedience, secret pride—that’s the warm tone sparkling over Boy.
Supporting that is the film’s whimsical spirit: a true-to-life humor akin to looking at other timely relics like those old photo albums starring our parents. In this case it’s the ‘80s, but it could be any decade really: the bad hair, the overtly trendy clothing, those for-lack-of-a-better-word-let’s-call-them-jeans jeans. Snapshots that would qualify as satire if it weren’t for the minor fact that, oh yeah, they’re real. The moment you’re quietly fazed with that familiar revelation, when under all the hairspray and dated yearbook-style posing and faded framing, it hits you: Our parents…they were just kids.
Such is the reflection of Waititi’s maturing portrait as a director and writer, here in his sophomore effort. Under Boy’s pop culture premise, there’s someone poised, sincere and ageless. Someone who knows that a good coming-of-age story never really ends. Even for our parents.