Sundance: Is New Zealand’s Boy the Next Precious?
My first day at Sundance went pretty much exactly as I’d hoped and feared. I saw a movie I loved (Boy) and I saw a movie I hated (more on that later). It was beautifully and unusually snowy—the continuation of the storms hitting the West Coast, I’m told—but then I stepped in a foot-deep slush puddle before my first screening.
Among the external factors that unfairly influence one’s judgment of a film, having a freezing, slushy shoe ranks up there with being in the front row, so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Boy. But I was pleased to learn before the screening that the film’s director, Taika Waititi, had had the same experience. Waititi, whose first feature was 2007’s playfulEagle vs. Shark (in which he is credited as Taika Cohen), happens to be the Sundance Film Festival’s official voice on Twitter , which completely befits his benevolently absurdist tone, something like a Kiwi Jared Hess. Twoth Waititi, under the handle Sundancefest: “Stepped in a puddle. One wet shoe. One sad foot.”
One of 41 films in the World Cinema Program, Boy is a totally fresh coming of age tale set in Waititi’s native Waihau Bay, in New Zealand. (The film’s sun-drenched beaches may have offered vicarious relief to my own cold, sad, foot.) The character of Boy (played by first-timer James Rolleston), is an unshakably cheerful, overimaginative 11-year-old Maori who lives on a farm with his grandmother, brother, younger cousins, and pet goat, and whose twin obsessions are a girl named Chardonnay and Michael Jackson. (The film is set in 1984, around the time Thriller was topping worldwide charts.) Despite growing up in rural poverty without his parents—his mother died giving birth to his younger brother, Rocky, and his father, Alamein, spent most of Boy’s life in jail—Boy is all dimply smiles, largely because he has built up the image of his father as a dashing war hero and sports star who will daringly break out of prison to take him to see Michael Jackson live.The reality, we learn when his father comes home to squat with Boy and his family, is quite different. Played with disarming exuberance by Waititi himself (who looks a bit like a Maori Clive Owen), Alamein turns out to be more of a child than Boy, and his delusions even more outlandish—he imagines himself as a noble, Samurai-like gangleader, when in fact he is little more than an alcoholic layabout with two loser friends who still asks his mom for money. And instead of building a new future, he digs up the past—literally—by spending his days shoveling through his backyard in search of a pile of money he’d buried years before. Though Boy is thrilled at first to have a father-figure in his life, and it’s clear Alamein loves him in his own way, Boy soon learns that he’ll have to stake out his own way to adulthood.
Like last year’s Sundance favorite—and likely best-picture Oscar nominee—Precious, Boyfocuses on parental abandonment as an angle into issues of poverty and hopelessness in minority communities. Waititi also makes use, like Precious director Lee Daniels, of elaborate fantasy sequences. But whereas Precious sinks into dark caricature, Boy is lifted by Waititi’s genuinely heartwarming and hilarious flights of whimsy, not least of which are the scenes where Boy imagines Alamein as Michael Jackson. The film ends, likeSlumdog Millionaire, with a joyful dance number, in this case a Maori Haka-infused rendition of Thriller.
In the Q&A that followed, Waititi, 34, was asked how much of the movie was autobiographical. “Not much,” he answered; only the fact that it was shot in his childhood home. And that the characters were based on friends and family. And that he was a huge Michael Jackson fan.
Waititi appeared relieved by the crowd’s overwhelmingly positive response to the film. And judging by his Tweets throughout the night, he was:
2nites screening of “Boy” is sold out but I will hide someone in my pants if necessary. — TW (#sundance) about 17 hours ago
I’m at a gifting sweet getting sweet gifts. NOT. Come on people, FOCUS ON FILM.–TW(#sundance) about 16 hours ago from web
Hoooo! BOY premiere in an hour! Think I’m gonna puk-eeeuurrrrgghhh…(too late!) –TW (#Sundance) about 16 hours ago from web
Omg just introduced my film and forgot to thank myself for being so awesome. –TW (#Sundance) about 15 hours ago from web
They are watching “Boy.” I feel sick. I am drinking. It’s an escape. –TW (@Sundance) about 14 hours ago from web
The 12 yr old star of my movie got a standing ovation. Proud. — @TaikaWaititi (#sundance) about 12 hours ago from TweetDeck