Toppling the idyls of youth

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Boy (M). Director: Taika Waititi. Starring: James Rolleston, Taika Waititi, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu. Running time: 87 minutes

Boy movie poster

This Kiwi coming-of-age comedy won the Audience Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and it's not hard to see why. It is an accessible and idiosyncratic film with the heart and social conscience of Once Were Warriors and the endearingly offbeat comic sensibilities of Napoleon Dynamite.

Its hero, known to friends, family and teachers simply as Boy (Rolleston), is an 11-year-old Maori youth living on a rural property at Waihau Bay, New Zealand, in 1984. He is a young boy with grown-up responsibilities: when his grandmother goes out of town, she leaves him as the man of the house, responsible for looking after his bother Rocky (Aho Eketone-Whitu) and assorted younger cousins.

Boy's mother, we learn, died some years previously, and his father, who abandoned them, is lately in prison. None of this does anything to dampen Boy's exuberance for life (brought to bear with irreverent charm by talented first-timer Rolleston), or his hero worship of his absentee father Alamein (Waititi, also the film's writer and director).

When Alamein does return, suddenly and unexpectedly, with a couple of seedy mates in tow, Boy is determined to hang on to his heroic preconceptions. Despite all evidence to the contrary.

Boy adheres to a coming-of-age formula where childhood is a place of blissful ignorance that is gradually toppled by knowledge and experience: knowledge plus experience equals growing up, and growing up is painful. The film reinforces this by harking to a more idyllic time and place that are, respectively, past and remote. These innocent environs are impinged upon by ill forces borne by damaged adults: the violence and drug cultivation perpetrated by the father of Boy's friend; the alcohol and anarchy that Alamein brings to Boy's world.

Even Boy's fanaticism for Michael Jackson, a running gag throughout the film, provides more than period detail. It foreshadows the scars that the passage of time can leave upon things we hold dear. In 1984 Jackson is at his artistic and popular peak: pre-surgery, pre-child abuse allegations and all the other things that later marred his public persona. Boy's worship is, for now, pure. As an audience watching in 2010 we know the purity is transient.

In fact Boy's Jackson-worship epitomises his youthful idealism. Even a barroom brawl is transformed in Boy's head into a version of Jackson's 'Beat It' music video, although the violent reality breaks through eventually.

Boy projects Jackson's charisma and cool onto Alamein, which is partly why he has trouble seeing the man's perennial lameness. Alamein is the leader of a three-member biker gang, is prone to ill-fated attempts to vault Dukes of Hazard style through the window of his car, and wants Boy to call him Shogun (as in 'samurai warrior') instead of Dad. Yet Boy regards the man with wide-eyed wonder — this is his father, after all.

The film has a lot of heart. Like Napoleon Dynamite, it regards its most eccentric characters with affection. 'Weirdo' (Waihoroi Shortland), a kooky and maligned local scavenger, turns confidante and advice-giver to Boy's eccentric and neglected brother Rocky. Even Alamein, who bears comparison to Napoleon Dynamite's obliviously uncool uncle, is pitiably pathetic despite his villainy. He, like Boy, just has some growing up to do.

But Boy is, above all, incredibly funny. From its opening monologue, where Boy introduces himself, his life and loves (including half a dozen references to Jackson), it hits a lively, witty pace that barely lets up. Rocky's quirky outlook, epitomised by his belief that he has telekinetic powers, is a highlight of the film. It's humour with purpose, though: even Rocky's idiosyncracies, we learn, have roots in grief.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival. 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Boy, Taika Waititi, James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, New Zealand, Maori, Waihau Bay



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Existing comments

Thanks Tim, when my partner and i left the cinema after watching Boy we were both deeply moved by the experience. We found ourselves very fond of Boy and his family, including his impossible father. These were real people and there is something about this film that is greater than a simple story of Maori life in 1984 rural NZ.
I recommend catching the Thriller re-make of Poi-E, as seen at the end of the film, on youtube as well as a number of instructional videos from The Crazy Horse Gang - hilarious.
chris gow | 03 September 2010


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