It’s 1984, and an 11-year-old is standing in front of his classroom, giving a little presentation about his life. “My name is Boy. Welcome to my interesting world.” Let us be the judge of that, kid.
He is, appropriately, the title character of Taika Waititi’s Boy, the New Zealand writer-director’s follow-up to 2007’s insufferably twee Eagle vs Shark. That twee-ity carries over to much of this film, which is full of fantasies, animated children’s drawings, and Boy’s (James Rolleston) wildly whimsical stories about a life that’s very unlike his reality.
Boy’s reality is that he’s effectively an orphan, living with his grandmother, his younger brother, Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), and a gaggle of cousins while his father (Waititi) is in jail and his mother’s in her grave, having died while giving birth to Rocky. He imagines his dad as a know-it-all superstar with moves like his hero, Michael Jackson, and is therefore over the moon when his father is released and stays with Boy and Rocky while their grandma is out of town. He promises his kids big things—once he finds that sack of cash that he buried—and Boy believes him, picturing the three of them living in a mansion and riding dolphins. Meanwhile, Rocky just stays silent, all but ignoring Dad and practicing the magic “powers” he trusts he has on whomever happens to be nearby.
But Dad isn’t the hero Boy wants him to be, and it’s this gradual, devastating realization that saves the film from being all silly asides and vague feel-goodness. As annoying as Boy can be with his constant chipperness and off-the-rails imagination, you can’t help but sympathize as his father increasingly proves to be a drunken dick. (He’s got two jailhouse friends, his “gang,” for more easy comedy relief.) But just as Boy starts to settle into a nice emotional groove, Waititi torpedoes it with quirkiness again. Like the kid’s waking dreams, Boy’s down-to-earth storytelling is nice while it lasts.