Thursday, February 8, 2018

Growing Up Honestly in BOY

by Cass Cannon
Did you have a good childhood?

Were there white fences? Two parents? A family dog? Were those the things that made you happy? Or was is it the time your dad stuck wine corks up his nose carried on at dinner...or the time you weighed your feet down so you could walk across the bottom of the pool with a bucket on your about when you realized the person who kept not flushing the toilet was actually your cat who taught herself how to use the toilet?

Whatever the constellation of good, bad, and weird, childhood is childhood. And normally, through the eyes of an adult director, the smaller details get lost through the loose grip of recontextualization. All too often, children end up playing mini adults, asked to process through past traumas and behave much more maturely than what is natural; think old, wise baby Jesuses from classical paintings instead of real kids.

Seldom does a movie get it right, and when they do, the emotional resonance is profound—among the rankings of authentic childhood experience in film, I often reach for We Are the Best!, Let the Right One In, and, now, Boy.
Boy, while not at all serious on the surface (true to Taika Waititi’s narrative style), shows us glimmering reminders of what dealing with life’s Big Stuff as a kid is like. Layered with humor, misunderstanding, and a gentle approach to magic realism, Boy captures boyhood with an emotional sensitivity that I was not expecting from Waititi.

Boy (played by James Rolleston) introduces us to his extravagant little life in a school presentation. We learn about his Nanny, his little brother, and his cousins—with whom he lives—and his absentee dad, a hero type suspended firmly in his own arrested development. Boy has a dreamer’s approach to storytelling—as adults we can see through the fibs and tall tales down to the less than happy truths of Boy’s circumstances. Still, we also see the moments where Boy shows his natural empathy; his ability to care for all of his cousins while his grandmother is away, and his attention to maintaining a peaceful and happy home.
The peace does not hold for long, however, as deadbeat dad, Alamein (played by Waititi), returns from jail in search of a large fortune he’d buried years prior. The promise of spending time with their rugged outlaw dad AND the prospect of finding buried treasure causes a rift in the boys’ relationship. Rocky grows all the more distant and alienated, while Boy relishes in every second of his father’s attention—slipping out of his role of caring older sibling figure to ornery pre-teen who is trying to relate to his seemingly manipulative dad.

James Rolleston, although quite young in this role, manages to capture a version of Taika Waititi that shows the director’s breadth of talent, as well as obviously showing off this kid’s acting chops. He’s the perfect balance of awkward and brooding, confused and faking understanding, and just everything that gives us enough second hand embarrassment and warm hearted feelings to remind us of our own childhoods; good, bad, and everything else.
I was late to the Stand By Me party. And while I LOVED that movie, it’s sort of the perfect example of what I mean when I talk about movies that lose the nuanced, often charming, nature of childhood behavior and opt for using kids as surrogates to process messy adult emotions instead. Neither approach is correct or incorrect, it was just refreshing to see Waititi’s approach to boyhood coming of age, when the genre is often marred with the former’s way of doing things. We see these mini adults in everything from the most recent IT, to Boyhood, hell, even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is undeniably related. And I guess, what I’m trying to get at here, is that I know what it feels like to remember the messiness of my own childhood—we all do—but what Boy reminds us is the silliness that was also tangled in everything. The refreshing take made me cry, not for the feeling of “wow this is a sad tragedy,” but because of how unexpected every plot twist is in the emotional response they’re able to illicit. I’ll never stop singing Taika Waititi’s praises as someone who can make me laugh and turn a story into something totally other, but now the dude’s got me for one of the more sentimental takes on growing up I’ve seen in awhile.


  1. i forgot this existed. i need to watch it now

  2. I watched it, it waa great

    Because of the Maori angle, i compare it to Once Were Warriors. Boy is obviously way less tragic, but still is about children suffering from the lack of adults around and having to grow up way too soon

  3. I didn't really see how awesome Boy was...until the end. I could see him caring for the house and his cousins but it wasn't dawning on me as a positive thing. I was like holy crap where are the adults. It only really struck me at the end (the doorknobs back on) that Boy isn't only a boy, he's also THE adult.

    And then that hit me hard because that's the truth a lot- a lot of kids play adult rolls with adult emotional or physical responsibilities in their lives because parents are so messed up in whatever ways. For all the fun and fantasy in their story, the ending was so soberly real. Taika's so good at that. My fav of his is still Eagle vs Shark. That hula hoop scene.

    1. Oh yeah, and realizing at the end how much the dad is the boy... was crazy too.