As the disastrous recent adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close illustrated, it can be difficult to attempt a child’s-eye view of a scary, uncertain adult world without devolving into a hideous miasma of preciousness and sentimentality. So one of the unexpected triumphs of Boy, an enormously likeable coming-of-age comedy from New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi (Flight Of The Conchords), lies in its ability to recapture the vulnerability and optimism of childhood without becoming twee or maudlin in the process. Waititi’s film, the top-grossing New Zealand film of all time, is based on his Oscar-nominated short “Two Cars, One Night,” and while its airy slightness and brisk running time at times betrays its origins, its modesty also constitutes much of its homemade charm.
Set in rural New Zealand circa 1984, Boy casts fresh-faced James Rolleston as a young boy who worships at the altar of Michael Jackson and his own absent father (Waititi), who has grown to mythic dimensions in his overactive imagination. In elaborate, enormously winning fantasy sequences, Waititi becomes Jackson, acting out the pop icon’s music-video triumphs in the cinema (or at least MTV) of his son’s mind. Then one day Waititi pops up unexpectedly in Rolleston’s front yard in a sweet ride alongside the only two other members of his motorcycle “gang,” the Crazy Horses. To an impressionable, daydreaming 11-year-old, Waititi is the coolest man in the world: He’s got a nifty car, badass tattoos, a luxurious pompadour, his own gang (however paltry and unthreatening), and he’s only too happy to play war or discuss Thriller or his favorite movie, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, especially when he’s stoned, which is much of the time.
Waititi and Rolleston share a flatteringly delusional conception of Waititi as a swaggering icon of outlaw cool because the reality of the father’s existence as a deadbeat ex-convict and narcissistic overgrown child would be too dispiriting to bear without the softening filter of fantasy. As Waititi sticks around to look for money he buried before going to prison, it eventually becomes apparent that he’s a drunk, a pothead, and an irresponsible father who exists in his own private fantasy world. In its third act, this funny, bittersweet, tonally assured coming-of-age story grows unexpectedly poignant as Rolleston comes to realize he doesn’t need a super-cool buddy or co-conspirator in his misadventures. He needs a father, and Waititi’s stunted man-child is fatally unsuited and unqualified for that role.