Boy, a tiny, perfect film from New Zealand director Taika Waititi, is so insistently likeable that it arouses suspicion. One suspects that it might be too cute, that playing a potentially horrific story of poverty and neglect for laughs is somehow wrong. Then there's the genre – straight-up coming of age – that hardly seems equal to the originality of the story.
But disbelief so churlishly summoned is easily suspended. Boy really is as good as it seems – as good as anything the hoary coming-of-age formula allows – and is all the more lustrous in light of the witless blockbusters monopolizing summer screens. Even the inevitable flaws of the low-budget production are winning, showcasing as they do the narrative artistry that makes Boy so distinctive amid current factory-written studio productions.
Both written and directed by Waititi, who also stars as the lead character's feckless father, the film is set in the same isolated Maori village where he grew up. Their mother dead and father jailed, 16-year-old Boy and his younger brother, Rocky, live with an unexplained horde of other children in the rickety house of a grandmother who drives off at the beginning of the film and remains absent throughout. Boy himself returns from his regular escapes into elaborate fantasies about his superheroic father just long enough to prepare meals of shredded white bread and powdered milk for his fellow orphans.
As in the normal course of such plots, the father's eventual appearance sets the stage for the young hero's inevitable disenchantment. Waititi leaves no doubt about that, playing father Alamein broadly as an irredeemable clown, wannabe gangster, wheedler and fool who embodies the hazards of perpetual boyhood. And pointedly fails to mount the typical Hollywood arc toward an unlikely redemption, instead staying realistically irresponsible to the bitter end.
Incident abounds in the meantime, incipient tragedy giving way to charming comedy, with nothing more charming than actors James Rolleston and Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu as dreamy Boy and six-year-old Rocky. Each of the three boys at the heart of this movie enjoys a distinctive inner life that is dramatized in crisp, funny fantasy sequences, the best of them being the brilliant splashes of animation that bring Rocky's first drawings to life. Drawn and animated by Waikiki himself, Rocky's fantasy sequences typify the consistent wit that keeps Boy bobbing along so buoyantly.
Released in New Zealand two years ago, Boy quickly became the highest-grossing film ever produced in that country, vying with Lord of the Rings and Titanic as one of the five most popular films ever released there. Despite favourable reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, however, Waikiki was forced to make a public appeal for $90,000 on Internet funding platform Kickstarter in order to finance U.S. distribution.
His film remains the 98-pound weakling of this summer's superhero beach scene. But when it comes to dramatizing the emotional truth of real-life heroism and its many shadows, Boy kicks sand in their face.