The story of a Maori family dealing with the aftermath of the mother's death and the father's long imprisonment, Boy pulls off an elegant balancing act, diving into its characters' emotions while maintaining a joyful lightness of spirit.
There's no pathologizing of poverty in this lovely film, which is told from the point of view of its title character (James Rolleston). The oldest of the family's two sons, Boy is a bright, imaginative 11-year-old who loves his life and idealizes his absent father, spinning tales of comic-book glory about him for his brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu). So when Dad (writer-director Taika Waititi) comes home from prison while the grandma who's raising the boys is away for a few days, Boy is as thrilled as we (and Rocky) are wary, treating his dad like a star fallen to earth in his own backyard.
That turns out to be pretty much how Dad sees himself, since he's a classic case of arrested development, living on beer and delusions. (Writer-director Waititi says he based his character on men he saw as a kid: "Skinny alcoholics who were trying to be tough, who were essentially wimps that surrounded themselves with losers.")
Waititi makes us feel the confusion, sadness, and self-doubt that is the boys' main legacy from their parents—you know just how much relief they must feel when grandma rolls back into the driveway—and for much of the film he leaves open the question of whether they're better off with or without their father, who sows instability and bad advice wherever he goes, like a car with a hole in its muffler spewing exhaust.
But these kids need their dad and vice versa. The film's emotional honesty earns its cautiously happy ending, which leaves us with hope that the three of them will figure out how to form a functional family. Meanwhile, a winning generosity of spirit leaves us room to contemplate Rocky's and their dad's perspectives as well as Boy's. Even the girl who's nursing a crush on Boy gets her due, though he barely notices her himself.
Brief interludes that turn Boy's and Rocky's imaginings into cartoons or dance numbers epitomize Boy's mix of emotional realism and cheery, sometimes goofy good humor. The real-life action occasionally strains a little too hard for effect, like when Rocky roller-skates up to his father one night, emerging from the darkness to ask for his forgiveness, but that kind of overreaching is rare.
More typical is a recurring image of dad and the boys digging holes in a field, which feels entirely plausible at the same time that it makes a nice metaphor for this dingbat dad's hapless leadership.
Opens March 2