by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 30, 2012

A scene from "Boy"
A scene from "Boy"  

"Boy," a rare export from the cinema of New Zealand, is much more than an international curiosity - it's an insanely creative coming-of-age tale in the mold of classics like "The 400 Blows." Directed by, written by, and starring filmmaker Taika Waititi (previously known for "Eagle vs. Shark" and "Flight of the Concords"), it's an undeniably personal dive into both pop culture of the 80s (specifically, 1984) and the lives of the indigenous M?ori people of New Zealand.

And while the film's bravura opening sequence turns the focus more upon the titular Boy's obsession with Michael Jackson and 'Thriller' than anything else, the rest of the film - about his attempts to reconnect with his wannabe gangster father, recently returned from a crime spree with his 'gang' the Crazy Horses - achieves startling emotional heights that the film's comic tone never even hints at.

A scene from "Boy"  

And that’s what is earning "Boy" such praise; what earns it comparisons to films from artists like Francois Truffaut or Wes Anderson. Waititi handles everything his script deals with - parental abandonment, poverty, even drugs - with a touch that is as light as air. He nails the tone without a single misstep, somehow keeping me alternatively racked with laughter and devastated by the characters.

It’s an insanely difficult balancing act, no doubt, but Waititi somehow is able to make scenes like his pot-addled robbery of local drug dealers not just comic set-pieces, but also distinct and important parts of the narrative. And even when things get ’heavy’ and the drama takes hold, you’re never more than a moment away from another uproarious moment.

And much of that is due to the fact that Waititi’s film is about fantasies and projections; about how we see the world through our own terms rather than the truth. All three of his main characters get extensions that allow us to see the world through their eyes - Boy has visions of his father’s numerous exploits (shown in a quick-cut montage that is undeniably reminiscent of "Rushmore") that set up their relationship better than any voiceover could.

A scene from "Boy"  

Waititi, as the father Alamein, lives a whole life that is a fantasy - his gang, his aspirations, and especially the arms-length at which he holds his children, are all things he knows cannot last forever. Waititi nails this role (and don’t be shocked to see him acting in American films very soon,) always keeping the slightest sense of self-awareness (in regards to his own failures) in his line readings while still putting on an air of confidence that serves as the film’s funniest conceit.

But the fantasy subtext peaks when Boy’s brother Rocky (played by Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, who steals the show with his steely glare) is convinced he has magical powers, and they manifest themselves through drawings (sketched with colored pencils) that Waititi edits in as the film’s special effects.

It is here that the film’s handmade quality really shines through: not just in the drawings nor in the narrative, but in the way Waititi (as director) has the audacity to tell his story through musical numbers, fantasy sequences, and every other storytelling device he can create. Not a single second of "Boy" is rote - despite its footing in the coming-of-age genre, you’ve never seen a film quite like this before (even Anderson’s films, the closest comparison point, have a distinctly polished look that Waititi clearly shuns, instead preferring to revel in the natural elements of his New Zealand setting.)

A scene from "Boy"  

And through that originality, the specificity with which it handles its setting (both time and place,) Waititi has earned himself a spot next to classic coming-of-age tales like "400 Blows," "The Graduate," or "Harold and Maude." He earns it as a filmmaker, with his incredibly dense editing (you’ll be amazed at just how much information is dispelled before the title card - every cut brings with it something new and exciting) and rhythmic montages that recall the aforementioned film. He earns it as a writer, with a story that is alternatively simplistic and unafraid to be ambiguous (the final line has been stuck in my head for days.) And he certainly earns it as an actor; giving an emotional-but-funny performance that will surely have Hollywood casting directors chasing him down.

While some may complain that the comic feel of "Boy" is too slight; I found its levity refreshing and its emotional moments more daring than you see in most dramas. So for those who like their reality skewed, you’ll find no vision better than "Boy" this weekend.