Writer-director Taika Waititi may be the founder of his own school of humor: call it "cruel-reality" comedy, Kiwi division, as practiced in his film, Eagle vs. Shark, and now his semi-autobiographical Boy.
Told from the first-person perspective of the title character, Boy is the story of what happens one week when Granny is called away to funeral, leaving a half-dozen kids to fend for themselves under the watchful eye of the titular character, Boy (James Rolleston), who hasn't quite crested the plateau of puberty.
Boy has an imaginative younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), who is semi-convinced that he has mental super-powers. They and their young cousins shortly find their lives invaded by Alamein (Waititi), Boy and Rocky's long-absent father. Their mother died giving birth to Rocky (hence, his belief that he killed her with his super-powers) and their father, a half-assed wannabe gangster, has just been a legend to them, though, in reality, he's been off in jail for a bank robbery.
Alamein turns up unexpectedly, accompanied by a pair of mates, and takes over the house and Boy's life, while trying to plot his own comeback. But his braggadocio about what he'll do (as opposed to what he actually does) prove eye-opening, even to the worshipful Boy.
Boy goes through that disorienting moment when he stops seeing his father as an omniscient parent or some larger-than-life character. Instead, he finally sees him as a human being: a person with foibles, weaknesses and flaws. That shakes Boy's world - one which has been fairly self-contained until this point.
Shot in a tiny town in remote New Zealand, Boy is set in 1984 and drenched with echoes of the period's culture: principally, E.T. (a particular favorite of Alamein), Shogun and Michael Jackson's Thriller (a touchstone for Boy, who worships Jackson and is dying to see him live). From a distance of 25-plus years, it's amusing to see people caught up in that particular craze, right down to the red-and-black-leather jacket.
Waititi keeps things simple and yet delivers complex emotions in a coming-of-age story set in what might be considered abject poverty in another culture. The Kiwis in this tiny village on New Zealand's rural east coast - a mix of ethnicities - live off the land and don't seem to see beyond their own borders, except when the culture of the outside world - such as Thriller - invades.
He draws remarkably natural performances from his young actors, particularly Rolleston as Boy, who conveys the sense of a youngster clinging desperately to childhood even while being forced to grow up. Eketone-Whitu is also a likable presence as the taciturn Rocky. Waititi himself displays unpredictable comic timing and a troubled likability.
Boy, the largest-grossing film ever made in New Zealand, arrives in New York theaters this weekend through a small American distributor, Paladin Films, rolling out slowly to the West Coast and beyond. It's worth the effort to seek it out because it entertains and touches with sly assurance and deep feeling.
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