There's a flight taking off for New Zealand, and if you've never been there, I suggest you take this chance to hop on. It's a flight of fancy about an 11-year-old Maori boy named "Boy"---the most devout Michael Jackson fan of 'em all.
Writer-director-co-star Taika Waititi ("Eagle vs. Shark") sets this refreshingly gentle dramatic comedy in 1984. That would be the year of "Thriller," when MJ was King of the World, as well as Pop, even in the remote Bay of Plenty rural region of New Zealand.
3 stars = Good
- Starring: James Rolleston, Taika Waititi, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu.
- Rating: PG-13 in nature for language.
Boy (James Rolleston) lives on a hardscrabble farm there with his younger brother Rocky, his beloved goat, his motley crew of orphan-cousins, and his grandmother, who has just gone away for a week, leaving Boy in charge. His mom died in childbirth with Rocky. His dad Alamein (Taika Waititi), absent the past seven years, is the object of Boy's fantasizing: war hero, deep-sea diver, physical superman, escape artist, Samurai martial arts master, close personal friend of Michael Jackson. Never mind the brutal skepticism of Boy's friends.
Hardly has Gran departed when Alamein suddenly shows up in the actual instead of imaginary flesh, just released from jail in the company of two seedy pals -- wannabe "Crazy Horse" gang members like himself. This real vs. ideal dad is a brash, bungling, hard-drinking thief who has returned to the homestead not to find his kids but the bag of money he buried there before his arrest.
Trouble is, he can't remember exactly where he buried it.
Boy is buoyed rather than bothered by that. The tattoos! The braggadocio! The helmet and war games on the beach! Alamein, for his part, is buoyed by the discovery of marijuana plants in between the cornstalks. Once (and thereafter) stoned, he gives Boy a hideously bad "Michael Jackson haircut" with which Boy is stuck for the rest of the movie. His homecoming presents for his children include a box of sparklers, a pair of handcuffs, and a microwave -- which one of the kids thinks is a TV and tries to operate with a remote, and which Boy uses to heat up brass doorknobs.
Talk about a baaad influence -- but not really a baaad guy. He's just incredibly immature for his years, as his son is becoming incredibly mature beyond his: The scales gradually fall from Boy's bright, brilliant eyes.
The film is chock-full of wonderful vignettes in these scruffy Maori kids' scruffy lives. "Hey, Chardonnay!" Boy yells to that deliciously named schoolgirl of his dreams. "Wanna see some Michael Jackson dance moves?" She doesn't, but he does them anyway -- the most terrible, talentless imitation thereof. A classroom fight results in his after-school detention and a lecture about fulfilling potential. "What's 'potential' mean?" he asks. "I'm off duty," the teacher replies -- and leaves.
This material would never work without exceptional performances from the two fine child actors: James Rolleston is an unaffected, appealingly perfect Boy. Sweet-sad Te Aho Eketone-Whitu as brother Rocky believes he has magic powers -- and does, as a performer: "My mom's dead. I killed her," he says with the stone-faced gravity of uttering simple facts.
Director-writer-co-star Waititi, assigns himself the key droll role of the ne'er-do-well father, who prefers to be called "Shogun" rather than Dad. He does it well, combining buffoonery with real angst, ending up as a kind of Steve Zahn in dramatic high-stoner mode.
Mr. Waititi's script, expanded from his Oscar-nominated short film "Two Cars, One Night" (2005), is semiautobiographical, filmed where he grew up. That "Bay of Plenty" area has beautiful natural seaside surroundings but not-so-beautiful man-made scenery in the borderline poverty-stricken homes and villages where these Native Zealanders (and mixed Maori folks) live.
In English and Maori (the former can be as tough to understand as the latter), "Boy" is a lovely example of "kiwi" filmmaking: Ah, how birds without wings somehow manage to fly. Mr. Waititi's super animation (of Rocky's fantasy scenes) adds a great deal.
This charming, low-budget, unpretentious coming-of-age tale tugs at the heartstrings in a fresh, not formulaic, way -- faraway hero worship meets the long arm of American culture.
Stick around for the nifty "postlude," a final credits song-and-dance sequence, with more wonderfully bad MJ imitative choreography, plus a fun final fillip.
Somebody always has to be the goat.
Opens Friday at Harris Theater, Downtown.moviereviews
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: firstname.lastname@example.org.