Taika Waititi writes, directs and stars in my favourite of the films I saw at this year’s MIFF. Boy is a curious mixture of outright comedy with coming-of-age drama, balancing moments of laughter with heartbreak, all in a perfectly timed and measured package. The result is simply superb.
When his grandmother goes to a funeral, eleven-year-old Boy (James Rolleston) is left in charge of his six-year-old brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) and a collection of other children, fending for themselves in an old house on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Boy wants to be Michael Jackson (it’s 1984, and Thriller is the height of cool), or at the very least, just like his absent father Alamein (Waititi). When Alamein unexpectedly arrives home one night, Boy will get the chance to see whether his memories match the reality.
Waititi evokes time and place perfectly, and despite my not being either Maori or from New Zealand, there are elements of his creation that ring with absolute truth. Perhaps it is simply that I was almost the same age as the hero of this piece at the time it is set, and that Australia and New Zealand share cultural elements despite our many differences. Obviously, there are specific features that will mean more to Kiwis than an international audience, but this just makes the film a richer experience for those of us for whom the slang and behaviour is less familiar.
The film rests on wonderful lead performances from Rolleston and Eketone-Whitu as Boy and Rocky, and it is hard not to overstate how good their turns are. Both manage to convey the dreams and nightmares of childhood at their respective ages, and without their charm and skill the film simply would not work. Boy’s gradual realisation of where real-life meets fiction is both utterly heartbreaking and profoundly moving, and Rolleston manages everything asked of him in a fashion that adult actors may well envy.
Waititi has the difficult task of encouraging a degree of empathy from his audience despite Alamein being a rather appalling father and he proves himself up to the task. It is a brave decision to write a character whom the audience could easily despise and then ask them to accept his flaws and find resolution, and yet Waititi’s performance enables exactly that. When arrayed with the stunning achievements of his child actors, Boy can boast a roster of lead performances that most films simply can’t hope to match.
Timing, they say, is everything, and yet it is unfortunately rare to see a film so wonderfully conducted as this one. Waititi allows his film a gently comic introduction that adroitly establishes time, place and milieu, before swiftly and surely introducing the crises that Boy must overcome, and then deftly pulling everything together to end in just 87 minutes. In an age of extraordinary on-screen bloat, the most refreshing films are frequently those that choose to work within more sensible limitations, and so it is with Boy, a film that wears a mighty heart on its sleeve alongside its more obvious comedic tendencies.Rating: