If you pick up a DVD or Blu-Ray of a Taika Waititi film, the odds are good that the word “delightful” will be on the box somewhere. It’s a pretty apt adjective to attribute to most Waititi movies, though it’s far from the only one you could use. “Funny” comes to mind. “Smart”, also a strong contender. “Moving” could be on there. Waititi is only just starting to become more well known outside of New Zealand, thanks in part to the massive success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, his most recent film to be released. He’s also working on some new thing, something about a space viking and a green rage monster. And with this new wave of attention, it’s probably a safe bet to say a lot of people have recently begun working their way through his filmography, and their first stop will probably be Boy.
Boy is one of those rare films that are about childhood but aren’t really for kids, at least not fragile American kids who’ll explode if they hear a swear word or see someone smoking pot. It depicts children as they actually are: fragile yet immeasurably strong, wise but also kinda dumb. As people, in other words. Not tiny little noise-spewing chaos monsters, or just small adults who can’t drink yet. It respects kids and the insane amount of emotional turmoil they go through, and as corny as it sounds, it speaks to the kid in all of us. It may be the most resonant of Waititi’s films yet, and definitely goes into darker and more somber territory than Wilderpeople or What we Do in the Shadows. Because of this, it’s a very disarming film for those expecting something lighter, which makes the emotional gut-punches it eventually starts doling out all the more devastating.
James Rolleston plays Boy, a Māori kid living a rural New Zealand town. Boy idolizes Michael Jackson (the film is set in the 1980s) and dreams about his estranged dad, who left after Boy’s mother died delivering his younger brother Rocky. Boy dreams of meeting his dad and escaping to a more exciting life than the one the New Zealand countryside can offer him, and when his dad suddenly arrives on his doorstep it looks like Boy may get his wish. But then the crushing hammer of reality starts to bear down on Boy and his world, as his father quickly proves to be something other than the dashing rebel Boy spent much of his life idolizing.
And that’s where those previously mentioned gut-punches come in. Though Boy is absolutely a comedy, it isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty depicting the realities of childhood. In a literal way, it doesn’t pull any punches, and this makes it a much more serious affair than Wilderpeople and Shadows. It also means it feels like the most personal of Waititi’s works, in case the 1980s time period didn’t also tip you off that there may be more than a couple of autobiographical elements at play here. Boy doesn’t shy away from depicting the grim realities of Boy’s life, the crushing realizations about who his father is, and generally how crummy being a kid can be sometimes. It’s an honest film about childhood, and we need more of those.
Of course, none of this would be possible without a cast that’s up to the task, and thankfully Boy has one. There’s an old film adage that you should never work with children or animals, and between Boy and Wilderpeople, Waititi has now disproved the first part of that twice. James Rolleston is pitch-perfect in the title role, frequently playing across from Waititi himself as Boy’s father Alamein. Waititi himself is great, often showcasing his skill for comedic timing and delivery in one scene before going somewhere a bit darker the next. If we’re being honest, he’s a bit more skilled at the latter than he is the former, occasionally disarming moments when he should be displaying a darker side to Alamein. There’s a moment or two when Alamein should suddenly transform from a bit of a doofus to something more potentially frightening, and in a few of these moments there’s still something subtly comedic to his performance that undercuts what should be a more disarming and shocking moment.
Stylistically, it’s hard to pin Waititi down. He has certain tendencies he likes to return to. Flat compositions, playful cutaways, that sort of thing. But he has a less strict adherence to his personal style than others, and also very importantly never lets the style become the substance. He isn’t one of those directors who carves out an aesthetic niche and then lives there, letting his aesthetic come to define him. Style in Waititi’s films is always subservient to subject, and never the other way around. He resists pastiche, adapting how he tells stories depending on what kind of story is being told.
As an auteur, this makes him incredibly valuable. While other auteur directors show signs of slipping into self-indulgence, Waititi remains versatile while still ensuring that his particular voice rings through in each of his films. If he can keep this up, and remain adaptable and consistent, his could easily become one of those most important voices in film as a whole, and absolutely in film comedy.
Boy may not be the first film in Waititi’s filmography to watch, in fact it works better if you leave it for later on. Like Wilderpeople, it mixes comedy with some serious undertones. Underneath its fun, Wilderpeople is actually a very sincere, nuanced film about death, mourning and family. But Boy wears its serious elements on its sleeve, painting a more varied and immediately affecting picture, and hopefully this isn’t the last we see of this more somber side to Waititi.