Although it employs location shooting and focuses on a small community likely unfamiliar to many viewers, Taika Waititi’s Boy is less concerned with rendering the specifics of its setting (a small Maori town on the New Zealand coast) than in calling on bouts of whimsy and superficial cultural signifiers to approximate the headspace of its central characters. Since these protags are pre-teens filled with longing for familial stability, the use of flipbook animation and exaggerated fantasy sequences entails a certain logic, but these devices run aground on a fairly limited sense of imagination which fails to make up for the story’s essential slightness.
Taking place in 1984, Boy details the return of Alamein (Waititi) to his former home following a lengthy jail sentence. While his overjoyed 11-year-old son (James Rolleston), who shares Alamein’s name but is known by the other kids as Boy, takes instantly to his old man, his quieter younger brother, Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), is considerably more cautious. And with good reason. The second the older man pulls up in a weathered sedan, two of his buddies in tow, we know he’s bad news. Although he’s capable of a limited degree of tenderness, the father is pretty much a fuck-up, and as such Boy unfolds as one of those movies where a central character’s rottenness is apparent to everyone except for another central character, and we’re just marking time until that person figures it out.
But that the father is so cartoonish in his irresponsibility (all he does is dig for money he’s buried in the yard during the day and drink all night), there would be a certain wistfulness in the kid’s desperate need to worship the old man. Instead, all of Boy’s efforts at elevating his father seem a bit farfetched (in the film’s biggest imaginative gambit, viewing Alamein’s antics as fantasy-sequence pastiches of the music videos of the kid’s idol, Michael Jackson), failing to draw on believably developed characterizations to achieve the intended pathos. Everything here, from the (mostly American) pop-culture allusions (Jackson, yes, but also E.T. and motorcycle clubs) through the half-hearted attempts to sketch the community, to the fleshing out of the central characters and narrative, seems more than a tad superficial, none of it fully thought through. In the end, Waititi too often replaces cultural specificity with surface-skimming whimsy, and it would take considerably more than a boy imagining his father dancing on the lighted squares of the “Billie Jean” music video to make up that difference.