Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. “Boy” opens in limited release this Friday.
Taika Waititi’s sophomore feature “Boy” involves much younger characters than his comedic debut “Eagle vs. Shark,” but the new movie marks a step up in maturity for the New Zealand director. Assembling a coming-of-age plot that often recalls Danny Boyle’s “Millions,” “The Goonies,” and other canonical prepubescent adventures, Waititi nonetheless borrows and elaborates on a style that primarily belongs to his own unique universe. He expands on the deadpan characterizations of “Eagle vs. Shark” — which encouraged comparisons to “Napoleon Dynamite” — by applying emotional resonance to broad comedy. The result is an alternately zany, sentimental, and remarkably insightful look at the quirks of a child’s mind.
Set in 1982, the story centers around the titular eleven-year-old (James Rolleston, wide-eyed and motor-mouthed), a rural dweller whose mother died during childbirth. He drifts through life at his grandmother’s house, hanging out with his younger brother and dreaming up visions of his father as a MacGyver-esque action hero. Sadly, the reality fails to match his active imagination. Boy’s father, Alamein (Waititi), shows up from jail one day eager to reenter his son’s life — but his motives are questionable from the outset.
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Alamein is a typical Waititi character: Shamelessly self-absorbed and blatantly pathetic, he stumbles around town with his entourage, drinking and searching for buried treasure. Boy, partly out of denial and partly as a result of his youthful naivete, vainly attempts to reconcile his mental image of a paternal savior with the morally inept real deal. His fantasies gradually unravel, but not before Waititi brings them to life with hilarious visual flair. Boy’s admiration for Michael Jackson leads him to frequently imagine his father surrounded by disco lights as he unleashes a series of killer dance moves.
Like the British director Shane Meadows, Waititi demonstrates a keen ability to tap into the whims of the adolescent male mind and take them at face value. Because Boy lacks a stable leader in the adult world, he creates his own version of it. The authority he brings to first admiring his father and then deconstructing his lies proves his intellectual competence without straining credibility. Throughout the movie, he tries to learn the meaning of the word “potential,” but it’s clear that he understands it in his own unique way as he applies it to his ambitions.
Like many children, Boy wants the world to play by his rules. A sequence in which he comes across a large sum of money and buys popsicles for all his friends demonstrates his desire to lead the crowd. But even Waititi, with his maniacal narrative trickery, concedes that practical issues eventually impinge on flights of fancy. Gradually, the playful style begins to unravel, exposing the drama beneath. Although the first act lacks more upfront hilarity than audiences familiar with typical comedic rhythms might expect, the sedated humor hints at a greater thematic trajectory. The final scenes unite feelings of anger with resolve through sharply devised imagery and a marriage of the past with the present. Ultimately, “Boy” succeeds as both an ode to childhood and a lament about growing up.
Criticwire grade: A