It’s 1984. Our hero is Boy (James Rolleston), a plucky kid living in an isolated New Zealand town with his younger brother, Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), four younger cousins and their grandmother, who cares for them. Boy loves Michael Jackson and fancies himself a dancer in the King of Pop’s mold. Of course, Boy has absolutely no dancing skills, but he tries.
The plot of Boy kicks in when Granny is called away for a funeral. Boy is left in charge at home while all the kids happen to be on a week’s holiday from school.
Enter Boy and Rocky’s father, Alamein (writer-director Taika Waititi), who arrives with two dopey friends. Alamein has just been released from prison for bank robbery, though he makes up some cockamamie story for the children. He and his friends, who think they’re some tough biker gang, are looking for money Alamein buried in the yard. They enlist Boy to help them dig, and soon, the yard is a mess of holes that looks as if the gopher from Caddyshack settled in for the season.
In addition to being a thief, Alamein is also a perpetual adolescent. He insists the kids call him Shogun after the James Clavell novel; he helps Boy and Rocky invade a local beach (with tree branches as guns); and he sits in a chair as if it’s a throne.
Boy thinks Alamein is great. Their adventures together are exactly the kind of thing Boy hoped his father’s return would herald. Rocky, who’s quieter and imagines he has superpowers, isn’t so sure. It takes him longer to come around to Alamein’s childish version of child-rearing.
As must happen in coming-of-age tales, things turn serious. Boy finds the money and keeps it hidden. That turns out to be a mistake for several reasons, not the least of which is the incursion of his father’s bizarre and immature wrath.
Thankfully, everything in Boy is treated with a light touch and an unlikely but successful combination of innocent wit and assured filmmaking. The situations in which Boy, Rocky and the cousins find themselves look precarious on paper (they eat white bread with milk and sugar for breakfast, for example), but because the consequences of the actions of all the adults around them are handled with a wry smile by the filmmakers, the kids never seem as if they’re in danger.
James Rolleston plays Boy with a fake-tough naïveté. As his father’s dealings become more dangerous and ridiculous, Rolleston’s eyes gradually narrow into a semi-permanent state of distrust. It’s a canny choice for a young, inexperienced actor.
As Alamein, Waititi comes across as the kind of guy who’s a combination of dumb, immature and lazy. That he doesn’t really tip Alamein into downright nastiness is a good move. Boy is so charming on the whole that a sharp turn into brutal realism probably would have deprived it from becoming New Zealand’s all-time box office champ.
The poverty and lack of adult supervision may seem shocking at first, but the film’s overall sweetness lowers the stakes. Sure, Boy takes the easy way out sometimes when it could pack an emotional wallop. But honestly, it’s a relief to see a movie in which we gradually realize the kids won’t be imperiled for our viewing pleasure. Boy is slight, but it’s fun.
Written and directed by Taika Waititi
With James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu and Waititi