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April 1, 2012

It’s rare that we get a film from New Zealand around these parts; no, The Hobbit doesn’t count. So I’m glad to see that when we do, it’s a treat like Taika Waititi’s hit, Boy. It may have taken a while to get here — when it opened in New Zealand it buried How to Train Your Dragon and Clash of the Titans — but good films like this one are worth the wait.

The 11-year-old Boy (James Rolleston) lives in a Māori community in Waihau Bay, New Zealand in 1984. He lives with his grandmother who raises him, his brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), and a bunch of younger cousins. He seems obsessed with American popular culture, but it’s not just him; his friend Dynasty (Moerangi Tihore) harvests the marijuana her uncle grows amidst the maize crop along with her sisters Dallas and Falcon Crest.

Boy’s real name is Alamein, after his father (Waititi), who was named for the World War II battle. Boy tells kids around school his father is a famous war hero and all manner of other things. In truth, Alamein is in jail over a robbery, possibly since before Rocky was born and Boy’s mother passed away. Or at least he was; Alamein shows up with an anemic “gang” while Boy’s grandmother is away at a tangihanga — a three-day Māori funeral — in Wellington, looking for the cash he buried before his arrest.

Alamein and Boy are both dreamers — clearly father and son, though it’s a trait more suited to a son than a father. Waititi and Rolleston are each separately excellent, and they interact brilliantly. Rolleston is especially good for an actor who originally showed up for an extra part, and he manages to walk the fine line between being realistically and annoyingly childish. Half the things he says make a grown-up cringe, but his winning smile erases it all. Boy is a good kid at heart; he’s dealing with more than his share of hurt, to be sure, but we get the feeling he’s going to be all right.

As a director, Waititi owes a fair amount of his style to Wes Anderson, and it seems likely that fans of Anderson’s work will likely enjoy this film as well. But while he draws on Anderson’s influencers a director, Waititi separates himself from the realist-absurdist streaks in his writing. These are the marks of a dreamer — the sort of flights of fancy Boy and Alamein indulge in, but not what really happens. If, say, Max Fischer or the Tennenbaums represent a boy’s dream of superlativity, Boy is the one dreaming.

It’s obvious that Waititi has a winner here, and though delayed it’s a welcome sight in our theaters. Little of the local cinema from Australia or New Zealand manages to wash up on American shores, but there’s clearly no dearth of talent. Here’s hoping there’s more on the way from this one.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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