Set in New Zealand in 1984, Boy, an 11 year old devoted Michael Jackson fan, gets the chance to meet his criminal absentee father who returns to reclaim the money he buried years earlier. A disarmingly gentle and big hearted Maori coming of age comedy.
Taika Waititi | New Zealand | 2010 | 88 mins | 15
If director Taika Waititi had not broken into the big time with last year’s blockbuster Thor: Ragnorok – considered the boldest and funniest of the whole Marvel Studio series – it’s unlikely that many outside New Zealand would have heard of this quirky actor, television/film writer and independent film maker. A first short film was Oscar-nominated and he went on to direct several somewhat offbeat but well received feature films, including Hunt for the Wilderpeople a couple of years ago. But it seems that Boy, made in 2010 and winning a number of best film and audience awards on the international film festival circuit (and New Zealand’s highest grossing film ever) was only released in the UK because of the success of the Marvel film.
Like Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame and another New Zealander who featured his homeland as a location, Waititi had always wanted to make a film about growing up in his rural hometown of Waihau in North Island’s Bay of Plenty. Although he says the film is not autobiographical, he was keen to show “that style of New Zealand life back in the eighties, and the very special upbringing I had”. The eighties he sees as a time of relative (pre-internet) innocence but also of significant change as Maori society “grew up and found its feet”. The characters and places in the film are partly based on actual people and places around Waihau, where he is related to most of the few hundred population. Making the film was a community effort, with many members taking part in the film’s production as caterers and extras, and the community benefited from the film’s success by receiving a small percentage of the gross.
The children in the film, including the two starring child actors James Rolleston (Boy) and Te Aho Eketone-Whitu (Rocky), were recruited from the local school and had no previous acting experience. The part-Maori, and very hands-on, producer of the film, Ainsley Gardiner, found working with the twelve children very challenging and tells of the need to “let go, to allow the young actors’ whanau to help provide for the kids and to allow them to just be kids”. Whanau in Maori means the extended family, but the concept goes far beyond that to stand for a community of related families who live together in the same area, and thus forms another aspect of the setting Waititi was keen to capture.
The film brings vividly to life the extent to which at that time (and since) global pop culture, particularly from America, dominates children’s and adults’ imagination and Waititi, remembering his own obsessions with Prince, Ghostbusters, Spielberg’s ET etc, passes at least one of these on to the character he himself plays in the film: Boy’s long absent but returning father: Alamein. A key cultural influence upon the child Waititi – as just about everywhere in the world at that time, particularly for young people of colour – was Michael Jackson, who features heavily in the imaginary world of the film. SPOILER ALERT: watch out for a fabulous Hakka/Thriller mash up in the final scene!
Boy could have been just another coming of age film of the many we have seen over the years. But, if anything, Boy is a parody of the usual Northern Hemisphere/Old World version, and brings us a South Pacific/Australasian take on comedy drama which looks unflinchingly at family dysfunction, disconnection and child neglect yet still finds room for laughter. And finally, I agree with Mike Bartlett (Dr Foster, Charles III) when he says that the film refuses to succumb to the expected sentimentality and provides us with an ending that is entirely true to the awkward honesty of the preceding 90 minutes – what do you think?
Weighted vote 78.05%