Taika Waititi's second feature sounds like the stuff of sad, slow-burning drama: young boy idolises his long absent Dad, then gets to know him a little better.
Yet this is the same joy-inducing hit that spent months in local cinemas, on the way to becoming the biggest grossing NZ film to date (at least until Waititi unleashed an even bigger boyhood tale, in 2016). Acclaimed and beloved on its home turf, Boy also succeeded in its aim of presenting Māori characters in ways that sidestepped old cliches (like the violent Dad in Once Were Warriors). It marked the first time in Kiwi screen history that a single person took away awards for their work both in front of, and behind the camera.
Boy's opening nicely sums up the movie's appeal. Apparently talking directly to the audience, 11-year-old Boy (James Rolleston) introduces himself. Imaginative, upbeat, blessed with a winning smile, he talks about his life in a small coastal town, and his younger brother, who thinks he has special powers. He also talks about his father Alamein (played by Waititi), who has broken out of prison with the aid of a spoon.
Boy uses his imagination to fill out the undersketched memories left by his father. The result is a man who can singlehandedly conquer rugby teams, and transform into Michael Jackson (no, not the league player). The film charts how this father and son relationship will pass through idolisation, inattention and some kind of healing, after Dad returns unexpectedly from extended time in prison, with two gormless mates in tow.
Waititi evokes the headspace of childhood by mixing joyous insults and ice blocks from the dairy, sight gags and straight-talking, a sense of celebration and moments of sadness. The two young actors at Boy's centre (Rolleston and his enigmatic screen bro' Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) deserve credit for their winning performances. But Waititi deserves his share too, for perfecting (and surviving) the performances of a cast that includes so many young children.
Waititi once said he never intended to become a filmmaker. But after finding himself at the Academy Awards just a few years after first giving films a serious try, it made sense to direct some more. The film that got him that Oscar nomination was 2003 kids waiting in the car tale Two Cars, One Night -— the shorter, quieter cousin to Boy.
Boy was born from multiple places: from an urge to escape old stereoypes of Māori characters as either spiritual or violent; from an urge to celebrate the experience of being a kid in an East Coast town, at the time he was growing up in the 1980s. But for Waititi, what really got things cooking was the idea of how a friend or relative can seem familiar and foreign, at the same time. "It's like looking at your parents and trying to figure out who the f*** they are," he told The NZ Herald. The film was about "how kids see their parents", and the fantasies we make up about people we think we know.
Waititi's reluctance to let his films stay in serious mode for too long can sometimes prove a handicap. But it also feeds into what makes them distinctive: the way he butts comedy and drama together, and manages to keep audiences caring about his characters despite abrupt shifts of tone and mood. In the case of Boy, Waititi consciously upped the comedy as he wrote the script, after worrying it was starting to slip into the stuff of "dark drama". Waititi had already done his share of comedy, on screen and on stage. "My background is comedy - I couldn't ignore that, really." So he set about adding "more of myself into the story, a bit more irreverence, and it's more a mix of comedy and drama now."
Part of that mix was taking the film back to its original setting, by filming in Waihau Bay on the East Coast (where Waititi partly grew up). Waititi sees it as a place where people may seem poor, but they "help each other and provide for each other". Many of his whanau were involved in the shoot, and younger members of the cast were found locally.
James Rolleston's performance as Boy compares with other legendary Kiwi screen debuts — Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, Fiona Kay in Vigil — where young, untried talent brought something extraordinary to the party. Rolleston got his chance just a week before filming began, after Waititi realised his original choice of actor was now too old to play the part.
For the part of the father — dreamer, robber, rebel in his own mind — Waititi ended up playing it himself. His performance admirably refuses to surrender to all the potential comedy of the character.
When Boy debuted at Utah's Sundance Film Festival in January 2010 (as one of 14 films in the World Cinema Dramatic section), a single review grabbed local headlines. Writing for widely read US screen magazine Variety, Peter Debruge accused the film of having "scrubbed away all culturally specific traits" (apart, that is, from the "local vistas and mostly Māori cast"). It was Tammy Davis, partner of Boy producer Ainsley Gardiner, who jumped into the quicksand of trying to counterattack an unfair review. Asked for her thoughts, Gardiner said that she felt New Zealanders were "going to feel pretty damn good" about the movie. "I can guarantee a good majority of Māori are going to feel like it gives them a voice."
But after the film was released on its home territory, pretty much everyone was feeling good. Within two months of release, Boy had overtaken The World's Fastest Indian to become the most successful NZ film in the country's history (not accounting for inflation). It took away seven Qantas Film Awards, including gongs for Waititi's directing, writing and acting. At the Berlin Film Festival it won Grand Prize in its section.
Among a raft of enthusiastic reviews, The Dominion Post's Matthew Dallas called Boy the most entertaining New Zealand film he had ever seen. Waititi's movie "has a strut to it," he wrote, "an infectious energy and cheek, the sort you'd find brimming from many of us on the playground or at the corner pub, but rarely in our cinema."
Helen Barlow, 'That's my Boy' - The NZ Herald, 6 March 2010
Matthew Dallas, 'Film review: Boy' - The Dominion Post, 23 March 2010
Peter DeBruge, 'Review: 'Boy' - Variety, 23 January 2010
Tim Hume, 'Munter lashes out over US Taika film review' - The Sunday Star-Times, 31 January 2010, page A4
Boy press kit