Michael Jackson died in 2009 and it may be hard for some to recall the days when he ruled the earth. Boy, a new film directed by Taika Waititi, returns us to 1984, the year of Thriller — which is just as inescapable in the tribal areas of Maori, New Zealand, as it is everywhere else. There, a young pre-teen named Alamein (after his father), but known only as"Boy," idolizes Michael Jackson and dreams of the return of the father he barely remembers, but who he fantasizes as a great adventurer. In fact the dad (played by the director) is in jail, and Boy, his younger brother Rocky, and numerous young cousins are all being raised by their grandmother. Accompanied by a few laconic stoners he calls "his gang," Alamein returns to his son's life while the grandmother is away for a week at a funeral. Alamein wants to find money he buried in a field near his mother's home, but is soon strutting about in high style as the man of the house.
Boy's mother died during the birth of Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), a taciturn little boy who believes he has super powers. The fantasies Boy and his brother entertain are handled with quick, amusing animation, often with a touch of the visual style of Wes Anderson. The story's theme — about a wise child who must come to terms with a deadbeat dad — also has affinities with Anderson. Watiti brings to the material a jest and brio that keeps the film zipping along, even with so many setbacks for the father-son duo that Boy and Alamein try to become. As does Bill Murray's Steve Zissou in Anderson's Life Aquatic, Alamein suggests a different nickname for himself than "dad." Instead, they become Shogun and Little Shogun.
American pop culture acts as a form of identification that is both minor symbolism and absurdist detail. Three of Boy's friends are named Dynasty, Dallas, and Falcon Crest, for instance, and Alamein arrives telling tales of E.T. which he has seen four times. A quotation from that early '80s megahit acts as epigram to Boy, which shares Spielberg's sense of childhood's autonomy. And like Spielberg, Waititi is willing to make use of a stupid plot point to take his film where he wants it to go. The film takes a dive when Boy, generally quite shrewd, does something unbelievably foolish. At that point some of the fizz goes out of the film.
Waititi skillfully evokes the malleable logic of childhood, and James Rolleston, as Boy, is a charmer all the way, with an easy expressiveness. Rocky, who we also get to know a bit, is a harder study. Burdened with the guilt of his mother's death, Rocky is withdrawn, but also less desperately in need of a father who will be a hero and a buddy. As Alamein, Waititi is likable enough to make Boy's partiality believable, and he's good at evincing a man of limited intelligence and patience dealing with kids who already have more basic sense than he does.
The rural areas of Waititi's native region are captured beautifully and their remoteness adds charm to the story, which otherwise might feel grim in the region's lack of prospects. Endearing, comic, touching, a bit manipulative in its approach to the lessons of childhood, Boy scores big.
April 13, Criterion Cinemas, 86 Temple St., New Haven, (203) 498-2500, bowtiecinemas.com
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