Boy is the 2010 film by writer/director Taika Waititi. Set in 1984, in rural New Zealand, it centres around the fantasy life of Boy, (James Rolleston), an eleven year old who lives with his six year old brother and various cousins, who are all looked after by their nan. Many critics have described the film as heart-warming, hilarious and feel-good. I thought it was funny but couldn’t overlook the heartbreak at its core. It reminded me of Australia’s Samson and Delilah in its stories of fractured indigenous families, poverty and deprivation.
Boy’s mother died in childbirth when his brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) was born and their father, Alamein, (Taika Waititi) was in prison. Presumably the young cousins they share a run-down cottage with have similar, sad family stories. In statistics reminiscent of Australian Aboriginal families, Maori families have a much greater proportion of parents who are unemployed than non-Maori families and 40.9 percent of Maori children live in single parent families. Maori children are also twice as likely to be victims of abuse or neglect than non-Maori children and the Maori population are over-represented in prisons.
During the seven-year absence of his father, Boy has concocted various fantasies about him- the most important one being that he can dance like Michael Jackson. Waititi has said that Michael Jackson had a “huge influence on Maori culture, especially in the 80s.” For Boy, Jackson’s music and dancing provides both an imaginary father and an escape from his disadvantaged life. When his father turns up out of the blue, Boy is understandably thrilled and it takes him quite a while to work out that his real father doesn’t quite measure up to his fantasy father.
The performances in Boy are outstanding and bring much of the wit to the film. James Rolleston, who was eleven when he was cast in the lead after turning up for a part as an extra, is a real find. Waititi, as Alamein, is in turn hilarious and repulsive, as a drugged out ex-con trying to find an easy way out of his current circumstances.
For all the harshness of the children’s lives, there is a kind of nostalgia for a more simple life on this isolated, but beautiful part of the east coast of New Zealand. The landscape is a character in the film, with it’s rugged coastline, cornfields and mountains of driftwood. Waititi used his grandmother’s house for the film, having it repainted to look exactly as it did in the1980s, and he has an obvious fondness for the area he grew up in, drawing on it for inspiration for his films.
Perhaps in an echo of the history of the Maori population, the characters in the film pass through difficult times to a more positive place. The film ends with a glorious mash-up of Thriller with Poi E by the Patea Maori Club, which was a big hit in New Zealand in 1984.
Poi E by Patea Maori Club video from Youtube
Waititi’s most recently directed TV series is Super City, which premiered on New Zealand television in 2011.