justin gauthier | yl voice | july 2016
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Set in 1984, Maori writer, actor and director Taika Waititi's film “Boy” is a poignant, comedic look at the nostalgia of childhood and the relationship between a son and an absentee father. The film captures a slice of time in the life of an 11-year-old boy nicknamed, you guessed it, “Boy,” living in a completely rural part of eastern New Zealand. Relatable moniker aside, this film does an excellent job of welcoming viewers with modest production values that feel authentic to the place and time Waititi aims for.
Still, it's the characters in “Boy” that make the film. From the strong debut of James Rolleston as Boy to the blustering, plucky performance of Taika Waititi as his father, Alamein, the film has two anchors that tug at the viewers' heartstrings. The aforementioned twin themes of nostalgia and relationship play themselves out in the starry-eyed hero-worship Boy endows upon his father. The father embodies the back-and-forth of arms-length distancing to reckless abandon that some young men mistake for maturity. These actors, performing Waititi's screenplay, transport the viewer to a time, place and emotional release that's grippingly immersive. The film manages to strike a satisfying balance between comedy and drama. The laughs almost always spring from innocence and the drama is not overwrought, which is a difficult thing to achieve. Waititi shows the maturity of a seasoned storyteller in striking and maintaining this balance throughout.
Waititi is no stranger to the New Zealand film scene, as he's responsible for several masterworks in the country's emerging cinematic renaissance. His early efforts include 2007's romantic comedy “Eagle vs Shark,” a film that successfully carried the torch of the nerd comedy phenomenon sparked by Jared Hess' “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and was kindled by Tim Skousen's underappreciated “The Sasquatch Gang” (2006). Beyond his home country, Waititi is a prominent figure in the global indigenous film circuit and has expressed at different times throughout his career a responsibility to portray Maori people in real and respectful ways.
In an interview from March 2015 on The Cuts, With Sterlin Harjo podcast, Waititi stated that he feels, “a responsibility in that I don't want to embarrass my family or Maori people. Even if, like, in 'Boy' the dad is a complete idiot, it doesn't really paint Maori dads in a good light. I hope that people are mature enough to know that it's just about an idiot dad, it's not because he's Maori.”
Within this quote, Waititi echoes the feelings of many indigenous filmmakers. It's insightful in the way it highlights the kind of internal vetting process that takes multiple levels of community into account. This attention to intention seems to be missing from the studio tent pole movies that have dominated theaters the past few years. The attention towards an honest portrayal of a specific character while keeping the image of family and people in mind is a fine example of what indigenous filmmakers should aspire to when practicing their art.
Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.