Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, James Rolleston and Taika Waititi in Boy (Unison Films)
That Shakespeare line about names comes up often when I think about films, because at times a title can either say it all or say very little. A film entitled simply Boy can be seen as kind of a middle ground, it invites further investigation. A seemingly nondescript word for a title it turns out that Boy is actually what our protagonist is most commonly referred to, hence the title is eponymous.
What stands out in the early-going, as Boy (James Rolleston) introduces us to his world with an embellished front-of-class presentation, is that the film can be said to have some flair and originality. There are flashes of a fantasized life both in live action and in child-like animation. What it brought to mind was Submarine, which made me cautious. There are great things going on in the first half of that film (a film too many callously over-simplify) but that spark and originality only carries it so far as I feel it gets bogged down. Here quite the opposite happens, while the quirkier elements are more intermittent as the film progresses the elements do get to the heart of the characters, and help to develop the comedy and drama inherent in the story. They are a boon to the film and a segue into the world.
The film is a tale of a father’s estrangement from his family, his son’s desire to have him around, to reconcile with him and coming to terms with the realities of one’s family. Given some of the facts of the story it could be too easy to take the story to a melodramatic or maudlin place but this film never does that. This is, of course, a credit to the screenplay but also to the actors. The first of note being Taika Waititi, who not only plays the father but is the film’s writer and director, what makes this fact even more impressive is that I didn’t know that beforehand and found that not only was his comic persona a rival to a Paul Rudd character but he also plays the more dramatic portions of the story very well. Add that to all the behind the scenes work he did, being the heart and soul of the film, and it’s truly brilliant and awe-inspiring.
The equilibrium of tone allows this film to have quite a brisk pace, which makes it an enjoyable watch regardless of the tonal shift in the story. Things time out just right and no section of the film seems disproportional.
While the film is about Boy and it very much focuses on his character’s arc, his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) has a very significant subplot. Eketone-Whitu’s performance is one which is much more silent than Rolleston’s but every bit as effective. He is quiet because he feels like an outsider and due to certain facts about his character is struggling to embrace not only his place in the family but also who he is.
Which leads me to another brilliant touch this film has, Rocky’s conflict is with his past and his brother, in part it makes him quieter and kinder and also leads him to bond with a character they refer to as Weirdo (Waihori Shortland). To not discuss it too much, part of what makes it so great is not just the natural, logical connection they share but it takes a character that seems like he’ll be excess and makes him essential. Similarly, Boy has quite a journey in his tale but his certain isolation and conflict with his father makes him a bit angrier, so his personal connection is to fantasy and his idolatry of Michael Jackson, which considering it’s set in 1984 is a logical choice.
I’ve written quite a bit about endings, not in the broader sense as in happy or sad, open or resolved; but rather in the minute sense of picking the precise moment and the precise note. This film ends perfectly. It ends with a punchline but also with the realization of who their father is and embracing that for better or worse. The tale is truly complete and the film is over. Both boys have gone through very different reactions to their father’s return to their life and their emotions have run the gamut, but they’ve reached a peace with what the unchangeable status quo is.
Boy is an excellent film, which illustrates best how specificity translates to universality. This is a film set in 1984 on the east coast of New Zealand about a Māori family yet you can be on any continent in any corner of the world and enjoy this film and take something away from it. Why? Because it’s true and connects to something innate in all people, which makes it great.