New Zealanders are my new heroes

It’s easier to declare a film a work of genius than to figure out its secret. But I think in the case of Boy, it’s balance. This film tempts you at the start to expect a feel-good movie, but ends up steering clear of sentimentality. There’s menace and heartbreak, but it doesn’t go over the top into numbing social realism. It’s about the clash between fantasy and reality that kids experience, some more brutally than others, but which most of us somehow survive. It highlights what is probably a near-universal experience on the road to maturity — a boy’s disillusionment with his father and the process of re-establishing the relationship on a new footing. Boy’s ride past that particular milestone is hliarious, but it’s credibile enough to be thoroughly jolting as well.

The story is about two brothers who live with their grandmother and miscellaneous young cousins on a ramshackle farm in the Bay of Plenty. Their mother is dead and their father is mostly in jail. Boy is the oldest, and already self-reliant enough to look after the other kids when the grandmother leaves them on their own for a few days. Shortly after she departs their father, like the Cat in the Hat — charming, even elegant in his best moments, and completely irresponsible. He’s destined from the outset to wreak havoc in his sons’ lives, although you sense that he’s fundamentally harmless.

Boy has pleasant scenery, first-rate cinematography, a very funny script, a dozen or so well-written minor characters (including a goat) and a general attention to detail that modest-budget antipodean films often lack. But what really makes it is the performances of the three leads, two of whom are children. James Rolleston and Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu as Boy and Rocky, aged 11 and 6, are not just captivating individually, but splendidly convincing in their portrayal of the see-saw of brotherly affection and disaffection. Then there is Taika Waititi as Alamein, their loser of a father, and one of the most original and beguiling screen characters I’ve seen for years.

Waititi also wrote and directed the film: he is obviously a multi-talented fellow. Apparently he was determined to escape the unofficial Brand New Zealand straightjacket that’s been created by previous international successes:

So I ended up moving away from that and trying to inject some quirkiness and comedy. Maori get pigeonholed into the idea they’re spiritual and telling stories like Whale Rider and Once were Warriors, quite serious stuff, but we’re pretty funny people and we never really have had an opportunity to show that side of ourselves, the clumsy, nerdy side of ourselves, which is something I am.

For those of us who haven’t had much exposure, the film is in fact a crash course on Maori culture. It’s set in 1984 and based on Waititi’s own childhood experiences. He says in this interview that it was a more interesting decade when Maoris rediscovered their culture and took pride in it; but I wonder whether he found it necessary to go back one generation to find a simpler, more tractable version of the culture to represent. I’m in no position to judge — and I’d welcome correction by any New Zealander reading this — but perhaps the generation of 2010 is too heterogeneous and/or too inextricably integrated with its European counterpart to portray neatly.

One important point Boy makes, without labouring it, that the bulwark of Maori society is its women. Though all the main characters are male, the women in the story, whether children or adults, are endowed with deep compassion and have both feet on the ground. The grandmother, though we never see her, is always present. She has instilled the with children with good habits and manners; and her own son Alamein obviously has a well-tuned moral compass somewhere under the drug-addled, good-for-nothing exterior.

So, New Zealand, in age of formulaic films, I’m grateful to you for this refreshing delight, and I’m glad that there’s more to your cinema than Lord of the Rings. I doubt, however, that you deserve all the credit for this film, since I’m pretty sure that three or four of the characters are played by Chris Lilley.

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3 Responses to New Zealanders are my new heroes

  1. Dave Bath says:

    Perhaps you’d like the two series of “Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby”, which has some strangely nuanced elements in the statements of the outrageously politically-incorrect but unbigotted hero and the depiction of stereotypes. I don’t think it would ever be attempted in Oz.

  2. JJ says:

    Thanks for the tip re Boy – will go and see it. Second the recommendation re Mr Gormsby – it is achingly funny in many parts.

  3. aidan says:

    but perhaps the generation of 2010 is too heterogeneous and/or too inextricably integrated with its European counterpart to portray neatly

    Maybe too politicised. Cultural identity is political now. Always has been, but lately (foreshores legislation, Maori party split from Labour), it has come into sharper focus.

    Waititi said he set the story in the early 80s as this was about being a child, and that was his memory of childhood. It does allow a certain amount of nostalgia and distance though.

    Perhaps you’d like the two series of “Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby”, which has some strangely nuanced elements in the statements of the outrageously politically-incorrect but unbigotted hero and the depiction of stereotypes. I don’t think it would ever be attempted in Oz.

    David McPhail, who played Mr Gormsby, is a veteran political satirist whose show “McPhail and Gadsby” was … well .. uneven but groundbreaking. When they got a second crack at it wasn’t much more consistent, but this one is quite good.

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