boy4/5 Stars

If you need to be persuaded to see Boy — Taika Waititi’smost recent venture in filmmaking — the evidence of its brilliance is all there: Since its release, it has become its native New Zealand’s highest-grossing film of all time.

The titular character’s vivid imagination, nestled underneath a floppy head of hair, is clearly portrayed in the first scene. Boy (James Rolleston), an 11-year-old living in a small Maori village in 1984, fantasizes about meeting Michael Jackson, whose album Thriller has just been released. In school and around his friends, Boy wildly embellishes — or else completely fabricates — his absent father’s accomplishments. He engages in mischief and creates foolish spectacles while courting Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), the village beauty. When he goes home, though, he is the epitome of a self-sufficient, responsible child. Left in charge when his grandmother leaves their rural home for a few weeks, Boy cares for several of his younger cousins as well as his little brother, Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), whose birth caused their mother’s death.

By contrast, Alamein (Waititi), the boys’ father, represents the picture of recklessness and is characterized by a lack of concern for anyone but himself. Upon his release from prison, Alamein makes an unexpected return into the lives of his two sons.  Boy quickly warms up to his father and his pretentious ways, assisting him in the search for a bag of money buried in a vast field. Alamein’s negligence is further shown in his request for Boy to call him “Sensei” rather than “Dad,” which is only fitting since he acts no older than his son.

All of the kids in the movie play their parts convincingly, but the lead actors are the most impressive in their respective roles. Rolleston fully captures Boy’s exuberance and gregarious nature, whileEketone-Whitu shines as the modestly wistful Rocky, who believes that he possesses superpowers over which he has no control. Such high-caliber performances by kids this young are rare.

Once the movie ended and the credits began rolling, writer-director-star Waititi himself entered the theater after the viewing I attended. First, he offered the audience some background on the film, explaining that he was fascinated by the idea of family members who end up distancing themselves from one another. His inspiration for the film stemmed from his idea that in hero worship, the first people to fall are one’s parents.

While the plot is not autobiographical, the film was shot in Waititi’s hometown of Waihau Bay, New Zealand. In fact, the director’s own childhood home and school were two of the key filming locations.

The real treat, however, was the question-and-answer session that followed. Waititi’s experience as a stand-up comedian was obvious in virtually every one of his responses to the audience’s inquiries. When someone asked, for instance, how the children were cast, he revealed that he had noticedRolleston scavenging around in a dumpster in his hometown.

“No, he wasn’t scavenging,” Waititi said, negating his original response.  “You guys know nothing about my country,” he added with a wide grin.

None of the children had ever acted prior to appearing in Boy. Waititi even admitted that Rolleston was cast only three days before the crew began filming, since the actor who was initially chosen for the lead role started to exhibit vocal signs of puberty just days before shooting the first scenes.

Overall, Waititi’s film is completely original in style, and while there are minor flaws or brief lulls in excitement, the movie is outstanding. The comic elements are enjoyable but they in no way overshadow the poignant emotional development of the characters. Amidst the blockbusters that monopolize movie theaters, Boy is probably not at the top of everybody’s must-see list — but it definitely should be.

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