Brief, flighty, and with ostensibly recognizable stylistic influences, Boy has all the makings of a film that will pass right under your nose, so seemingly slight you’ll be tempted to disregard it. Don’t. Like many movies that attempt to use light, pervasive irony and a wacky, precise visual sense to dig into deeper issues — like the ways that family and/or childhood turn into complex stuff — this movie risks coming off as a silly lark. If it does come off that way, it’s only because New Zealand director Taika Waititi hasn’t completely found his cinematic footing; he can’t quite steer his strong comedic sense into the realm of the truly bittersweet. But he has talent, enough to make a case for his films to be treated as more than the Amerindie knockoffs they resemble.
Boy gives us Boy (James Rolleston), an 11-year-old Maori New Zealander with the precocious ability to summarize his life according to the way he’d like to see it. If you take the movie’s brilliant opening montage as some semblance of an 11-year-old New Zealander’s truth, then Boy’s inner life is pretty sweet. He lives in a tropical paradise, though with a large family and not much money; he loves and imitates Michael Jackson, as 11-year-olds all around the world undoubtedly did in 1984; and he can’t tell enough people about his unbearably cool dad, who becomes all the cooler when he appears out of the wilderness behind the wheel of a muscle car, more than willing to make up for lost fathering time.
The dad is played by Waititi, a filmmaker/actor who’s been phenomenally successful in New Zealand; he was born in 1975, meaning he would have been just about Boy’s age in 1984. If Eagle vs Shark, his last film, was his Relationship movie, then Boy is his Childhood movie, all about forgiveness, innocence, and nostalgia (not least for MJ). Both are about somewhat dangerous outsiders with funny ways of speaking and odd little reasons for moving through the world. If that sounds too much like a popular title character from an early aughts sleeper hit, don’t let the likeness dissuade you. It’d be a mistake to describe the unique rhythm Waititi brings to his scenes by comparing him to famous directors whose styles always seem to be getting ripped off. Waititi isn’t ripping anyone off; he’s a truly funny comedian trying to make serious movies without getting all maudlin about it. He’s succeeding.