Boy, a Kiwi dramedy, opens with an epigraph quoting E.T. But don’t hold that against it. The previous feature from actor/artist/filmmaker Taika Waititi was Eagle Vs. Shark, whose stilted quirkiness, from the poster on down, is the stuff of infamy. Boy, which follows shorts and TV work (including Flight of the Conchords), is a nice sophomore maturation, interested in contrasting a young kid’s pop culture obsession with the comparatively grimness of reality.
As per the title, Boy centers on a young kid, namely an 11-year-old nicknamed Boy (James Rolleston) growing up in a Maori village on New Zealand’s eastern coast in 1984. That puts Boy at only slightly older than our writer-director was at the time, and you can sense Waititi fulfilling a stereotype about his generation in the breathless opening, in which his lead schools his classroom on his “interesting world” of wacky family and friends, video games and, most of all, Michael Jackson.
Into his world returns his deadbeat father, cutely named Alamein and played by Waititi himself. Even if Boy wasn’t in dire need of a father figure—or even just a parental figure, given his lack of a mom—he would be Hoovered into dad’s orbit: Alamein lords over a gang (three members strong), has a yen for samurai swords bequeathed from Shogun, promises him a trip to see Michael Jackson and is on the hunt for hidden treasure (i.e., a satchel of money buried around the family home).
Of course, he’s as toxic a role model as Michael Jackson, and Boy’s inevitable trajectory is for its hero to slowly realize the errors of his idolizing. That’s not before dad has given him an awful scissor-haircut, or starred in his son’s fantasy versions of MJ music videos, which extend into the end credits. Thin but likable but thin, Boy benefits mostly from the two-punch performances by Rolleston—just another one of those dynamo kiddie turns that thrive because they’re effortless—and Waititi. His performance is even more charmingly energetic than his filmmaking, which renders the familiar idiosyncratic without becoming insufferable.