Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, March 4, 2019

Director Report Card: Taika Waititi (2010)

2. Boy

One can't discuss Taika Waititi without eventually bringing up his unique heritage. His father is Maori while his mother is Jewish, a combination that is difficult to recall in any other pop culture figure. Moreover, his films seem to display a distinctly New Zealandian sensibility. “Boy” was his second feature but was initially intended to be his first. A viewer can't help but see the film as a highly personal one for Waititi, what with it being about a Maori boy growing up in the lush New Zealand countryside during the early eighties. (Further emphasizing this suggestion is that Waititi shot much of the film in his childhood home town.) It's hard to imagine anyone without that particular background to produce a film quite like “Boy.”

In 1984, Alamein – everyone just calls him “Boy” – grows up in his largely Maori community. His mother died while giving birth to his brother, Rocky. His father, also named Alamein, is serving a term in prison following a botched bank robbery attempt. Boy currently lives on his grandmother's farm, with a pack of cousins, often attempting and failing to make friends and impress his girl. When his dad returns home, a pack of cronies in tow, things start to change. Alamein Sr. drives a cool car, brings extravagant gifts, and fancies himself the leader of a motorcycle gang. He's searching for a cache of money he stored before going to prison, promising Boy adventure and riches once its uncovered.

As the title suggests, “Boy” is Taika Waititi's take on the coming-of-age story. Boy struggles with the typical difficulties of adolescence. He's bullied by kids at school, has weird friends he isn't sure he likes, and tries to impress a girl that clearly wants nothing to do with him. His relationship with his father forms the backbone of the film. At first, he idolizes his fathers, seeing him as this unknown hero in his life. However, “Boy” is ultimately a story about the titular character realizing his father is a massive screw-up and asshole. While this is well-trotted cinematic gang, Waititi brings his trademark sense of humor and creative direction to the material.

A connecting fiber “Boy” has with Waititi's debut, “Eagle Vs. Shark,” is the role of an overgrown boy in a man's body. Like that film's Jarrod, Alamein is deeply immature. He tells over-the-top lies to his kids, promising things – like tickets to a Michael Jackson concert or pet dolphins to ride – that he clearly is incapable of delivering. Like Jarrod, he boasts about achievements he most certainly have never actually done. Some of these, like seeing “E.T.” or listening to “Thriller” multiple times, are extremely pedestrian in nature. The kind of stuff only a young child could be impressed with. Alamein's arrested development is most apparent during a sequence where Boy plays soldiers with sticks... Only for the reveal that Alamein is playing the same game more enthusiastically than his sons.

Alamein Jr.'s childish daydreams about his father allows Waititi to indulge in the absurd, whimsical sense of humor that was quickly becoming his calling card. Boy dreams up all sorts of unlikely scenarios. Like his dad digging himself out of prison and then killing the guards with a spoon. He's shown fighting in wars or training as a samurai. Yet the best moments are the musical ones. Drawing from his love of Michael Jackson, Alamein Jr. more than once imagines his Dad recreating famous dance moves from the “Billy Jean” or “Beat It” videos. This sharply contrasts with the drunken clumsiness or embarrassing bar room defeats that happen in reality.

The most quirky digressions in “Eagle Vs. Shark” were animated sequences, showing various objects lurching to life in stop-motion. “Boy” shares a little of this style. Rocky scribbles drawings, reflecting his view of the world. A few times, we see these doodles leap to life. His father's arrival is shown as eyes and big teeth lurking to life out of a shadowed car. Later, Alamein Sr.'s temper-tantrum is depicted as his snarling face fusing with the house. The crude animation is done in the same pencil drawing style that Rocky works in, making these flights of fancy a further glimpses into the young characters' minds.

“Boy” is less oppressive zany than “Eagle Vs. Shark,” being a more naturalistic film that is less self-aware in its own wackiness. This isn't to say “Boy” doesn't contain lots of comedy. It's actually a very funny film. The interaction between Boy and his friends provides much of the humor. Such as a sequence where he navigates the maize fields, a random comment randomly turning the conversation toward bodily waste. Or his extremely awkward attempts to impress the girl he likes. Boy's dad leads to quite a few absurdist antics. Like his inability to leap through a car window, another way the movie undermines his attempt image of tough guy bad-ass-ery. There's a lot of quirky laughs to be had here through the frequently hilarious dialogue.

Ultimately, as funny as “Boy” often is, there's also a heart of sadness underneath the jokes. Boy does not talk about the death of his mother much throughout the film, instead fixating on and looking up to his father. His brother, Rocky, meanwhile, is obsessed with his mother's death. He blames himself for it and spends many hours sitting by her tombstone. The kids' father almost never talks about their mom at all. His inner sadness becomes rage, which frequently ends up targeted at the boys. There are confrontations, between son and father, between car and goat, that bring this deep sadness – this longing, this hope for connection to those who are lost – to the surface. Though full of giddy joys, “Boy” is also a movie about sadness. Because adolescence is a sad time too, of learning that those you once thought reliable are not.

Another similarity “Boy” has with Waititi's debut is that it's a movie about outsiders. While none of the characters are extreme in their quirkiness as those in his first film, there's a definite sense that our protagonists stand apart from the rest of the world. Rocky is a weirdo who believes he has superpowers, often thinking he can move things with his mind. Eventually, he bonds with a strange, possibly homeless man that loiters around the town. Similarly, Boy often seems to be closer friends with his pet goat, Leaf, than anyone that is human. Though he has a group of followers, it quickly becomes apparent that their father is a huge weirdo too, hopelessly wrapped up in his own juvenile fantasies of power and coolness.

“Boy” is set in the early eighties. This is very apparent in the pop culture references generously sprinkled throughout. To two items, especially. In 1984 New Zealand, Michael Jackson is the peak of cool. The characters talk about him constantly, wearing clothes inspired by him, attempting to mimic his dance moves, and generally wielding his image as a token of awesomeness. Boy's dad, meanwhile, repeatedly references “E.T.” over and over again. Waititi does not include these pop culture references for their own sake. Instead, these trivial icons provide a way for the characters to communicate. M.J. and Spielberg's little alien occupies the characters' subconscious. So, of course, they are going to talk about them a lot.

The film would be the debut role of James Rolleston. Rolleston was a last minute replacement for another actor. A week before filming, Waititi realized the other kid just wasn't cutting it and Rolleston was promoted from a background role to lead. It was a wise decision. Rolleston is the perfect lead for “Boy.” He has a funny and bubbly personality, bringing an incredible youthful energy and sense of humor to every line he's given. Rolleston is also more than capable of handling the film's heavier moments, seeming genuine in his pain and anger. I'm happy to see Rolleston has gone to a decent career too, despite some personal struggles.

Furthering how personal a project “Boy” was for him, Taika Waititi also stars in the film as Alamein Sr. This is exactly the kind of absurd character that Waititi specializes in, as an actor. Alamein is constantly making proclamations of his goofy achievements, which Waititi bites into with full force. He insists people call him “Shogun” and treats his ridiculous motorcycle gang as a totally serious endeavor. Waititi's ability to keep a straight face when delivering even the most ridiculous dialogue makes this character even funnier.  The actor manages to gets laughs out of swaggering with a machete or just the way the character wears a brain bucket style motorcycle helmet on his head.

Though the movie cycles through a number of emotions, it ultimately concludes on a joyous note, with a dance party ending that is totally earned. It's the ideally giddy note to take a film that does such a good job of capturing the energy youth on. “Boy” would be a surprise success in New Zealand, actually becoming the highest grossing locally made film in the country. Remember what I said about Waititi's specifically New Zealandian sensibility? That's what I was talking about. It is a heartfelt and frequently hilarious motion picture, showing the way its star/director/writer can mine laughs out of the most personal of material. [Grade: B+]

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