Maori Boys, Men and a Mom
Its first, 2005 draft done at Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab but refined over the years, Boy grew up to be the all-time highest-grossing film in its homeland New Zealand and to win awards and nominations. Obscenity, humor, drugs, sadness and an uncommon take lift it above its advertised “coming-of-age tale about heroes, magic and Michael Jackson.”
The actors are almost entirely first-timer non-professionals and all Maoris, whose village adolescent slang is more foreign to outsiders’ ears than the accents. The North Island location is not beautiful tourist-poster landscape but a hardscrabble coast of rickety or abandoned dwellings littered with rickety or abandoned automobiles. The year is 1984, but the mindset is twenty years before that: following the screening, director-writer-actor Taika Waititi confirmed that his happy hometown of Waihau Bay (“Windy Waters,” population two hundred) is still today technology pristine, a world apart where vintage cars tool around with cutout mufflers and that, with thirty students when he attended in the ‘80s, the high school where casting and filming were done now has only two students fewer.
Boy is James Rolleston, originally an extra but promoted to star when the first choice’s hormones kicked in and his voice cracked. The eleven-year-old introduces other players and narrates at times. Smitten with aloof schoolmate Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), who towers over his still physically unmatured frame, and ignoring Dynasty (Moerangi Tihore), who might fancy him, he tells stories of heroes, sometimes visualized as people in his life. Thus the disappeared (mostly in jail) father named Alamein (Waititi) as an imagined combatant in that North African battle or who will take him to see Michael Jackson “live” not far away.
Mother Joanie Ranguni lying under a slab in the graveyard will have her story filled in later. Taciturn younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) draws pictures and possesses mild telekinetic powers of which the film makes little use. With a pet goat they live with grandma, cousin Kelly (Cherilee Martin) and a slew of interchangeable baby cousins for whom Boy assumes responsibility when granny leaves for a funeral.
A loud Valiant Ranger with a balky driver’s-side door pulls up at night bearing Dad, dimwit mates Chuppa and Juju (Cohen Holloway and Pana Hema Taylor), and gifts of a microwave, lace-up disco roller skates and sparklers. Any resentment the older boy might have is submerged, to be explained later but at present swallowed up in hero worship of the big-talking man, though Rocky keeps his shy distance. The men set up partying, beer-drinking and pot-smoking quarters in the garage. The three ineffectual comic biker-wannabes are the sole members of the East Coast Crazy Horse renegades, tough talkers who get their heads handed to them by a couple authentic heavies, though Alamein insists they gave as good as they got.
Alamein and his elder son get to know one another -- though the man’s tall tales need be taken for what they are -- and Boy puffs himself up playing at being a real tattooed head. The likeable father does want to pal and play with his offspring, but the main reason for reappearing is a bag of paper money buried somewhere in a pasture there. Fleeing police or thugs or owners, he had not had the smarts or time to count off paces, and so the whole field is hit-or-miss fair game for digging.
Waititi noted that he had not intended to take the rôle himself until shortly before shooting began, that if employed at all Maori actors are “cast as psychopathic killers,” and that Kiwi cinema in general tends towards “a dark comic slant on things.” There is sadness in his Boy but far counterbalanced by a sweet roguish sense of humor. The grown-up father is a kid himself, little if any more emotionally mature than his offspring, and the child inside adult viewers can identify with them all and be charmed.
(Released by Paladin Films; not rated by MPAA.)