Taika Waititi's Boy contends with alienness—only a faint lineage to trace, and no bearings to situate a self. But Boy does so by recognizing the expansive imaginings that might arise from this state, and to feel unerringly sure in them, the way only pre-adolescents can. The protagonist Boy (James Rolleston) and his brood of siblings, friends, and cousins litter a small Maori village in New Zealand. We spend the first bit of the film dwelling in his cinematic fantasies of his father, Alamein (Waititi himself), who is serving time until he returns to spend 'quality time' with his boys, find hidden loot, and instruct Boy in the unwieldy ways of an imagined manhood. The makeshift alternates the real without eradicating it, much like the milk powder substitute Boy makes his siblings for breakfast everyday. Poverty is inextricable from the absurd, and casual violence lines the simulacra of minority lives and community which Waititi so entrancingly portrays in this film.
Boy constructs whimsy from dilapidated shacks, the corpses of tractors, and festering anger. Children work on hidden marijuana plantations after school and paint on the graves of deceased parents. Michael Jackson stands in for Boy's father-figure, no less a dangerous man-child hybrid then as his posthumous identity now. In Boy's initial hero-worship of his man-child father, we feel the hilarity and real dangers of machismo and precarious male relationships which are emotionally stunted, yet keenly felt.
Questions recur. "How long is he [Alamein] here for?" Rocky, Boy's lonely and artistic six-year-old brother, and his industrious Aunty Gracey ask—a constant deferral of abandonment until Boy reckons with his own ability to control this fun, painful, and evolving relationship to his father. "Do you know what potential means?" Boy looks to his father, teachers, and a dictionary, all in vain. What does potential mean for an eleven-year-old trying to grow up in a sparse landscape in which adults are neither positive guides nor complete monsters?
"What are we looking for?" Rocky asks a social pariah dubbed 'Weirdo' by the kids, as they rummage through seaside debris. "Anything," says Weirdo. Significance takes on its own playful and hollow semantics in this film; a self-administered Hoover-hickey signifies manliness, and coming of age means letting Michael Jackson go.
Waititi's oscillating film career and his sometimes unfathomable choices (read Green Lantern) feel appropriate in this space: one in which adults are absurd and decisions make little sense beyond immediate gratification. The allegorical coming-of-age scenes feel a tad contrived at points, such as Boy's confidante, his pet goat, being accidentally killed by Alamein. But the very present tones of poverty and global image-flows ground the film's meandering and clichés. Eating McDonald's with his crush, Chardonnay, is the climax of an adolescent date-fantasy, upon which Boy muses with said goat as he sits in his junk-backyard amidst the immensely beautiful Kiwi landscape. Waititi's caricaturist performance as Alamein almost finds its balance in such subtleties. It speaks to his proclivity for narrative and spatial enfolding, one that doesn’t feel pandering or high-handed, but rather finds its groove in a slightly indulgent, eager gait.