“Can you stop calling me ‘dad’? It sounds weird,” isn’t a line you’d expect from a feel-good coming-of-age movie. And the suggestion that follows, “How about ‘Shogun’? I like that,” puts Boy squarely in the realm of comedy. But Boy isn’t exactly a comedy, even though it will make you laugh, and it isn’t a feel-good movie. It’s a movie about crushing failure, personal identity, and the possibility of hope as experienced in one Māori family, circa 1984.
Boy opens with an 11-year-old kid (James Rolleston) giving a school report titled “Who Am I?”, his voice speaking over a montage of scenes from his life. It begins with a Māori greeting: “Kia ora. My name is Boy, and welcome to my interesting world. My favorite person is Michael Jackson. He is the best singer and dancer in the world. Last month, he put out a record called Thriller that sold a gazillion copies, and now he lives in a castle with a snake and a monkey.” He introduces the people in his community, including his grandma, aunt, cousins, brother Rocky and friends—among them a boy named Dallas, his sisters Dynasty and Falcon Crest. “Dynasty is the only kid around here with a job. She does after-school gardening work for her dad,” he says, while we see scenes of a girl picking marijuana from a cornfield and handing it to a shadowy figure.
Boy’s report moves from comedy to tenderness as he begins to talk about his own dad, Alamein (Taika Waititi), “named after some place where the Māori battalion fought during World War 2,” then explains: “My dad’s not here right now. He’s a busy man. He’s a master carver, deep sea treasure diver, the captain of the rugby team … When he comes home, he’s taking me to see Michael Jackson, LIVE. The end.” Returning to the classroom setting, where students are utterly bored and the teacher is smoking a cigarette out an open window, we feel the poignancy of Boy’s fantasy. Soon we also discover the lie of his father’s life—as another student whispers, “Yo man, you’re a liar. You’re dad’s not overseas. He’s in jail for robbery Same cell block as my dad.”
What separates Boy from other movies in its category—say, the 2003 Russian film The Return, which also tells of a years-distant father coming home to two sons—is its child-centeredness. These kids’ fantasy world, which includes not only Boy’s humorous revisions but Rocky’s belief that he has magical powers and can change reality around him simple by raising his hand and concentrating, creates just the right amount of irony to make the much harsher “real” world believable. The movie’s power lies in how the irony collapses. Increasingly, viewers find themselves seeing the world through the children’s eyes. It’s not only easier to take than the violent failure of Alamein, whom we eventually meet, but we suspect it might be more emotionally true than the adult way of looking at the world. At least it’s more hopeful, and that’s exactly what we, like Alamein, need.
When Alamein returns home, he has two dudes with him whom he introduces as his “gang” called the Crazy Horses. There’s an unforgettable shot of the three men crowded in the front seat of a black sedan, parked in the driveway of the family mobile home, while Boy looks at them with wide eyes and finally says, “Do you guys want a cup of tea?” There’s another unforgettable shot of the three men sitting on one side of the family table across from three small boys, in a sort of impromptu summit. As awkward as these scenes are, and as reminiscent of the visual comedy of movies like Napoleon Dynamite and Raising Arizona—which are also about dysfunctional families struggling along in remote places—they’re very different, because they’re very Māori. This is true outsider storytelling presented without a trace of arrogance and almost completely unselfconsciously—a far cry from the artful hilarity of the Coen Brothers. Yet it’s also more easygoing and winsome than Zvyagintsev’s debut.
But there’s an utterly serious core to Boy that could be missed among all the Michael Jackson references. To fully appreciate these more somber undertones, it might help to have experienced radical life-failure or to have hurt one’s own children through that failure. It might also help to be Māori (but then again, maybe not).
Boy’s more serious themes are especially evident in the character of Alamein—whose true purpose in returning home, we discover, is not to reconnect with his sons, nor even to visit the grave of his wife (who died giving birth to Rocky, catapulting Alamein into depression), but to dig in a field for stolen money he’s buried. He shows up with toys for the kids, plays the clown to make them laugh, gives Boy a terrible haircut and Sharpie tattoos, tries to interact with Rocky (who barely speaks), seems to embrace them in an awkward and endearing way. But jail time hasn’t humbled him—he’s still completely self-absorbed. He parties with his friends, gets high and drunk. Alamein wants to get rich and be the boss. But Boy is a moral movie, and it won’t let him.
As Alamein’s attempts to find his money are frustrated, he becomes increasingly desperate, his actions more destructive. Meanwhile, Boy, in an attempt to emulate his dad, tries smoking a joint. (It doesn’t help.) The sequence that follows serves as Boy’s pitch-perfect epiphany, with a girls’ high school choir’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the background, in Māori. Here, Alamein delivers his most important line, kneeling on the ground, broken: “I am the Crazy Horses! I’m the Shogun! I’m alone on this planet!” It’s a cry into the darkness that might also be a prayer. It’s the last gasp of Alamein’s pride as Boy moves toward its close, where in the final scene the hope suggested by the soundtrack becomes more evident: Boy and Rocky sitting at their mother’s grave, Alamein also finally there. If it looks like they’re sitting around a kitchen table, it’s no accident. Director Taika Waititi has an even keener sense of symbolism than he does of comedy.
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi
Starring: James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, Taika Waititi
Release Date: Mar. 2, 2012 (limited)