The second highest grossing film at New Zealand’s box office, surpassed only by this year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, also directed by Taika Waititi. It’s fair to say that he has the common touch. This is one of those films that is so instantly and effortlessly likeable that it’s easy to lose yourself and for the critical faculties to switch off. Not that I’m about to slag it off at all – this being my favourite coming-of-age film, full stop!
Set in 1984, Boy (a.k.a. Alamein after the Battle of El Alamein) is obsessing over the return of his dad, also called Alamein. When he returns from prison, dad proves himself to be a deadbeat, petty thief and man-child with delusions of grandeur. Whereas Boy’s younger brother Rocky seems unsure of this new adult, Boy is utterly starstuck by his rebel dad!
What still impresses with this film is Waititi’s handle on the tone. It swings so gently from comedy to really quite dark drama with the smartest of touches. For instance, Rocky believes he has magic powers but we see that this has been told to him by Boy because their mum died whilst giving birth to him. This idea starts as a nice comic idea, then develops into something much more serious before ending up with a note of hope and great maturity on the part of this little boy. Also, the brief flashbacks regarding the truth about their Mum is used really cleverly as a punctuation to the main story, revealing gradually Alamein’s true legacy as a father.
The film also employs many pop culture references but uses them in way that is never egregious. Mentions of E.T. and Michael Jackson are as relevant to the characters’ lives as Poi E and Billy T. That’s because this film, for all it’s wonderful formal trickery and flights of fantasy, is very much in the mold of social realist filmmaking and dramas about ordinary people.
But it’s a comedy too, right? Yup! And a fucking funny one too! The useless teachers, Alamein’s inept Crazy Horse gang mates keep the comedy grounded and make space for the more fantastical jokes such as Boy’s delusions where he sees his Dad as Michael Jackson or a fight with gang members turning into a dance-off! The device of Boy as the unreliable narrator is also brilliantly used for laughs and seems to be one of those cinematic techniques which is well suited to comedy. Boy is so much in love with the myth he has created around his Dad, he’ll even bullshit his own goat.
The appeal of films like this is that they are there to fill you with happiness. It is their sole purpose and although a lot of movies try to do the same, so very few achieve it. This, like another favourite film of mine, Somers Town, have enough of a distance on these boys that they can see their faults but develop the characters with a genuine goodness of purpose.