A Busy Man
“My favorite person in the world is Michael Jackson,” announces Boy (James Rolleston). “He’s the best singer and actor in the world. Last year he put out an album called Thriller.” As Boy speaks, you see an iconic image of the artist, his hair jheri-curled and his jacket collar stylishly high. The 11-year-old Boy is establishing his own iconic status at the time, that is, describing himself for his classmates, in a Maori community schoolroom in eastern New Zealand, circa 1984. Behind him, the greenboard proclaims the question shaping this assignment: “Who am I?”
It’s a typical assignment for fifth graders, the kind that allows them to follow a formula while expressing what might be termed their “distinctiveness.” As such, it underscores the allusion made by Boy’s name and the film’s title, Boy, to the simultaneous call on young people to conform and stand out, to be both special and ordinary. Boy’s efforts to find this impossible place are underlined when he shifts topics from Michael Jackson—whom all his classmates understand as a star and hero, after all—to his father Alamein (played by director Taika Waititi, a casting choice that creates yet another layer of identity slippage). In fact, Boy is named after his father, but takes the generic moniker to avoid confusion. He believes his dad—currently, another boy reminds Boy, “in jail for robbery”—will soon return and reclaim his place as local hero and star. He’s escaped, Boy concocts, as the film shows his concoction, dad digging his way under the prison wall with a spoon, emerging and “wasting” the guards—who drop to the ground in an antic pantomime with bloody, horrified faces.
Boy goes on to examine this simultaneous clash and expansion of a child’s vivid fantasy, as violence and valor bleed together. Boy wants to be like his dad, the dad he imagines, much as he wants to be like Michael Jackson (whose moonwalk Boy mimics to try to impress a girl, unsuccessfully). Boy imagines an escape from the tiny town where he and his friends congregate on porches, suck on popsicles or throw rocks on beaches. They’re bored, they’re reckless and anxious, they’re hoping they will live lives more like Michael Jackson than the adults around them. Though Boy’s Aunty Gracie (Rachel House) is surely tough and hardworking (she holds down some six or seven jobs, from mailman to shopkeeper), she’s not a boy, and so, she’s not an obvious model for him.
As it turns out, dad does come back, arriving during the late night at the house where Boy looks after his six-year-old brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) and a couple of other young relatives. Alamein and his buddies drive up in a car, as Rocky imagines the unknown creatures to be just that: an animated version of the child’s drawing shows black hair beats with red eyes and fangs, all three crowded into the front seat of a vehicle. This scary spectacle is both different and not different from the actual scene: the three men hunker together in the car’s front seat, smoking dope and waiting for the kids to deliver them a “cuppa tea.” Only after they’ve commenced slurping do the men realize they might as well go inside. It is, after all, Alamein’s home too.
The joke is that inside, the scene is much the same. The three men sit on the same side of the table, peered at by Boy and Rocky and their cousin. The children imagine Alamein will bring with him all kinds of great changes. He’s more or less inclined to assume his old ways, thieving and smoking and drinking. He also hopes to find the cash he’s buried in a nearby grassy lot, and sets his son to digging: the accumulation of holes in the turf a running visual gag that’s less funny than emblematic of the tedium produced by both straight and criminal labor.
Boy continues to fantasize, watching his father carefully for signs of his Michael Jackson-ness (at one point, he conjures a vision of him on the “Billie Jean” light-up sidewalk), while Alamein has his own dreams. Having recently seen E.T. (“Four times!”), he’s convinced that it’s metaphorical: “E.T. is one of the ugliest buggers I’ve ever seen,” he observes, “But, you know what, on his home planet, he probably looks normal.” At the same time, Alamein decides that his son should not call him “dad,” but instead, “Shogun.” When Boy asks for a new name too, Alamein comes up with the obvious choice: “Little Shogun.” “That’d be funny,” he pronounces. Boy doesn’t quite smile.
Boy‘s renditions of this vexed father-son dynamic veer from goofy to cute, never quite convincing, and not a little clichéd, complete with montages and wayward pets. The relationship is complicated in particular by Alamein’s bad temper. “I get frustrated, you know, when I can’t find my shit,” he says following an especially brutal and public assault on his son. “I get angry like the Hulk.” If te comic book hero is “usually helping people, maybe Boy can imagine his dad is doing the same. “Think you can handle having the Incredible Hulk for a dad?” Boy is angry enough that he’s disinclined to buy this line, which triggers more anger, of course. Unable to commit, unable to be generous in any way, Alamein is still, Boy and Rocky come to see, their only father, if not the man they must become.