Hollywood reporter

PARK CITY — A cross between The 400 Blows and Slumdog Millionaire (though not quite in their class), “Boy” follows a group of kids during a sleepy summer in a Maori community on the rural East Coast of New Zealand. If nothing particularly exciting happens, it’s a slice of life from a faraway place where the fundamental things still apply.

James Rolleston‘s sweet, winning performance in the title role as a kid with a lot of potential and a vivid imagination, largely overcomes the leisurely storytelling. It’s a crowd-pleasing film that could find a modest theatrical audience.

Set in 1984, 10-year-old Boy and his six-year-old brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) and a gaggle of cousins live with their grandmother in a tidy but rundown house in the middle of nowhere. When she is conveniently called away for a week to attend a funeral, the stage is set for a coming-of-age story in which some hard and humorous lessons are learned. In some ways, “Boy” is a shaggy goat story as Boy plays with his pet and looks after the mostly self-sufficient kids and hangs out with his friends.

Not much happens until three ominous-looking characters roll up to the house in a souped-up car. Turns out its Boy’s long-lost father Alamein (Taika Waititi) and two of his partners in crime. Alamein has been doing time for robbery, but Boy imagines him as a world adventurer who comes to save the day. In reality, he’s just come home to dig up some ill-gotten gains he buried somewhere in a nearby field. And hovering over the whole tale is Boy’s dead mother, buried in a sacred burial ground often visited by the two brothers.

Aside from his father, Boy’s other big hero is Michael Jackson at the height of his popularity, and Boy likes to break some moves, even if he knows they’re not very good. The heart of the film is taken up with the two brothers getting to know their charismatic but never-do-well father as he loafs around drinking and smoking doobies with his buddies while he has Boy digging holes looking for his loot.

Suffice to say that things don’t turn out as planned and neither the money nor Alamein save the day. But all the kids, especially Boy and his brother, go through their growing pains.

Written and directed by Sundance veteran Waititi, the movie seems to hit close to home for him; a 10-year-old in 1984 would now be about the age of the grown filmmaker. And Boy represents a big jump for the director. Bits of animation and whimsy serve the story without being excessive. Filled with colorful music by the Phoenix Foundation and lots of carefully observed local details, Boy has the cartoon-like feel of reality seen through the eyes of a promising and utterly disarming 10-year-old. No one here is completely evil, just not what they were cracked up to be.

If the film feels derivative at times, down to the mock “Thriller” music video performed by the cast at the end (reminiscent of “Slumdog”), who really cares? The infectious good will and clear-eyed performance of kids not yet spoiled by life carries the day.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: Whenua Films, Unison Films
Cast: James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, Taika Waititi, Moerangi Tihore, Cherilee Martin, RickyLee Waipuka-Russell, Haze Reweti, Maakariini Butler, Rajvinder Eria
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi
Producers: Ainsley Gardiner, Cliff Curtis, Emanuel Michael
Director of photography: Adam Clark
Production designer: Shayne Radford
Music: The Phoenix Foundation
Costume designer: Amanda Neale
Editor: Chris Plummer
Sales: NZ Film
No rating, 87 minute