Taika Waititi’s journey into the heart and soul of an 11-year-old boy in New Zealand will take you back, regardless of your country.Writer/director Waititi’s essay on the eternal thrill and optimism of youth is a wonderful viewing experience for young and old. “Boy” is an 11-year-old native Maori New Zealander. Boy (James Rolleston) is the protagonist and narrator in the film, however his main activity is observing the people and situations around him.
His descriptions are clear and precise, much more so than those of the adults. The film exalts children, allowing them to as with places with their nominal superiors, the adults. In this film the adults are addled, beginning with Boy’s father, Alamein, who return suddenly in the middle of the film to recover a bag of loot that is buried somewhere in an unmarked field.
Boy’s brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) believes he has magic powers. In fact, everybody in the film believes he or she has magic powers, only Rocky is out front about it. This is another measure of the honesty and confidence of the children in the film, as compared to the feckless and compromised parents who are gun-shy in making their mark on the world.
“Boy” is an unabashed homage to the sun-drenched, sanitized beach boy world of 1960’s California. Except, there is a bit of the Sharks and the Jets thrown in. The children’s world is a world where make-believe becomes real and, in many cases, is more real than the reality that confronts native New Zealanders at every turn.
Cars are prominently featured. They serve as status symbols, mechanical power amplifiers and religious symbols and alters. The car is the backdrop for the funeral of the beloved and semi-magical goat that is the children’s pet and confident.
Father’s Alamein’s car comes with unintended humor. The car, a Plymouth Valient, was fitted with a V-8 and sold as a muscle car in New Zealand, whereas it was the eternal 6-cylinder economy car in America, subservient to the Dodge-Plymouth “hemis” that dominated the street racing scene on 1960’s/70’s. In the interview with writer/director Taika Waititi after the New York screening, he described the car as being a “killer car” in New Zealand. The fact that the bumbling, permanently hallucinating gangster Alamein was driving the car that, in Americans’ eyes, would be associated with “the little old lady from Pasadena” turns out to be an unintended gift of humor and ironic sadness.
The boy’s mother died in childbirth, giving the youngest, Rocky, a sort of immaculate delivery into the cold reality of the physical world. Perhaps this unhinged the father and further submerged him into his life of crime. Alamein’s disjointed Maori existence brings us the universal message of displaced native people around the world.
They are caught between two worlds and accepted in neither one. Superseding the James Dean “rebel without a cause” archetype of the 50’s, they are the new warriors cursed to live eternally in the shadow of “peace.”
The children deal with this this defeat through the open use of fantasy and rationalization and their parents would do well to follow their lead. However, the pride of tarnished adulthood denies them this relatively healthy outlet. They are condemned to be grownups, forever banished from the never-never land of youth. Michael Jackson impersonations complete the homage to the American culture that hovers like a mirage over the sun and sea swept landscape.
The film is shot with assurance and affection on Waihau Bay in New Zealand, a stone’s throw from the director’s house and home town. The actors are almost entirely untrained amateurs auditioned and recruited from the immediate area. Of course, their accents, body language, phrasing and slang are perfect; far better than any director could teach or coach. Sets and costumes are entirely also natural, the unabashedly honest mis-en-scene providing a stark contrast to the fantasy that is the daily bread of the characters.
Using untrained actors has its downside. As filming began, Waititi was forced to switch leads to James Rolleston, who was hanging around the set as an extra. Turning trauma into drama has worked for the emerging director. It is going to be fascinating to see where he goes from here.
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Directed and Written by: Taika Waititi
Starring: James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu and Taika Waititi
Release Date: February 10, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Country: New Zealand