New York Times Review

“Critics Pick” !

Adult Responsibilities, but a Child’s Sensibility

By DAVID DeWITT

 

Next year’s Oscars, if they were to include the just-for-fun idea of outstanding performance by a setting, should have a nominee in “Boy.” This movie from New Zealand, filmed in a Maori village near the Bay of Plenty, belongs in the pantheon of quaint and quirky locales that make for memorable films.

At least I hope so, for “Boy” explores the area’s rugged natural beauty without ignoring its poverty — and, more important, without expecting place to do all the work of the movie. This unpretentious comic tale of a youngster’s growing relationship with a long-absent father has a surprising rhythmic genius: joy juxtaposed with humiliation, silliness with sadness, fantasy with reality, and none of it formulaic. The editing feels fresh, as does the film.

“Boy” is also blessed with two gentle and lovely performances by inexperienced child actors. In the title role (an 11-year-old everyone calls Boy), James Rolleston is an unaffected natural. He seems responsible beyond his years when caring for his family of younger siblings, yet he’s able to play the fool when romancing a schoolmate or pretending to worldliness. To watch him puzzle over his returned dad (Taika Waititi, the director and writer) is to see wishes become thinking and then epiphanies. Yet never does Boy seem to be a little adult; this is a child, with a child’s acute passions and disappointments.

Te Aho Eketone-Whitu evokes great feeling as Rocky, Boy’s younger brother, whose birth led to the death of their mother; he spends most of his time at her colorfully painted gravestone. Because of his birth tale, the modest Rocky is convinced that he has great power, superpowers in fact, that he can’t control. His lonely world and fantastical ability to cope are recognizable while also individual.

Don’t fear; “Boy” is not at all a downer. For one, there’s a funny recognition of the power of pop culture, perhaps especially among those whose lives feel so invisible: it’s 1984, Boy is obsessed with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and some of the children are named Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest. For another, there’s Mr. Waititi’s broad portrayal of Alamein, the father with a rugged biker’s shell but a playful child’s spirit.

That makes for three often endearing boys, though adults who act like children aren’t always the best parents. Alamein sure isn’t. His delusions (he and a pair of loser buds, ridiculously, fancy themselves a gang, but they’re serious about their drugs) run smack into Boy’s hero worship. The clashes are sometimes rich with feeling and eventually transformative, for both characters.

A work as original as “Boy” is bound to have less solid moments, but they’re mostly forgivable: a somewhat lackadaisical momentum in the middle, a few showy notes in Mr. Waititi’s performance. Unfortunately the bulk of the Jackson material, in some ways the hook of the film, seems the least organic in what’s already a strong personal story.

So what, really? The rustic Kiwi feel of “Boy” will still grow on you, and deservedly so.

Boy

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi; director of photography, Adam Clark; edited by Chris Plummer; music by the Phoenix Foundation; production design by Shayne Radford; costumes by Amanda Neale; produced by Ainsley Gardiner, Cliff Curtis and Emanuel Michael; released by Paladin. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: James Rolleston (Boy), Te Aho Eketone-Whitu (Rocky) and Taika Waititi (Alamein).