The Unrelenting Optimism of Taika Waititi’s ‘Boy’ (2010)

Indie darling turned Marvel pioneer Taika Waititi has had a rapid journey into the mainstream. His filmography demonstrates a desire to not take things too seriously, whilst also delving into weighty themes that many comedy writers shy away from. Over the years one thing has always been at the core of his projects: the all-encompassing hopefulness interwoven into his writing. To really understand Waititi’s hopeful writing, it is best to return to his early days as a Sundance newcomer. Boy (2010), Waititi’s sophomore feature, is a mellow love-letter to the challenges of adolescence. Nostalgic and warm, Boy is a film that centres around youthful optimism and never wavers from the belief that life can be both hard and happy.

A young boy wearing a striped shirt reaches out. There is a colourful painting visible behind him, with a bird in blue and another figure in red.
Image courtesy of New Zealand Film Commission/NZ On Air

The titular character is Alamein (James Rolleston), but he’s known by the local townsfolk simply as ‘Boy’; an 11-year-old living in the Tairawhiti region of New Zealand on a small farm with his grandmother. She raised him, his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), several cousins, and a goat named Leaf after his mother passed away during childbirth. Boy introduces himself through a monologue, set to the beat of ‘Poi E’ by Patea Maori Club (a Kiwi classic). Among other things, he details his favorite school subjects: “art, social studies, and Michael Jackson”. When his father (played by Waititi himself, donning an 80s denim jacket and mustache) unexpectedly returns to the farm for the first time since his wife died, we watch as a reconnection between father and son takes place.  Although his father’s true reason for returning to the farm is to find a bag of money he had buried in a field many years ago, Boy aims to reignite their relationship against a landscape of scenic coastlines, dingy pubs, and vast stretches of farmland. 

As soon as we meet these characters, we are thrown into the quiet chaos of their lives. Rolleston was cast as the lead role without any prior experience, acquiring the part solely down to the potential Waititi saw in him.The authentic naïvety in his naturalistic approach is an apt vehicle for all that the film celebrates; the inherent optimism of rural Kiwi life seems to be embodied in Rolleston’s performance. Waititi highlights the small joys of simple living: through crayon-scrawled animations depicting the superpowers Rocky is convinced he has, sequences of Michael Jackson-inspired dance moves. At one point, Dallas, a member of Boy’s ragtag group of friends, claims he and the other kids are self-employed. When Boy asks “Doing what?”, he replies “Chucking mud at those cows.” The small-town sense of nostalgia reverberates through every aspect of Boy: the upbeat soundtrack, the nonchalant jokes, stretches of grass, walking around holding sticks for no real reason, Waititi fits it all together like it’s an easy puzzle.

Two young boys wearing colourful summer clothes, with big smiles and holding branches. A man stands beside them, wearing a hat and an excited expression while holding up moss. All three of them are in front of a body of water.
Image courtesy of New Zealand Film Commission/NZ On Air

At one point, after trying and failing to understand the definition of ‘potential’, Boy says to his father: “I’m nothing like you. I don’t have any potential.” This garners a laugh, it’s a straightforward gag, a child doesn’t understand the weight of their words. But it reveals a melancholy resting below the surface. Boy is a confused, vulnerable child, his name is a constant reminder. His father’s emotional immaturity only heightens his fantastical view of life that is always threatening to come crashing down. 

When it does, it surprises us. Boy’s hopeful view of the world and Waititi’s delicate writing cushions us, every piece of heartbreak is sandwiched between a witty remark and a wink at the camera. Waititi crafts a world where we do not necessarily feel bad for the characters when things go horribly wrong, but instead we continuously hope for their best. 

At the very end of the film, Boy, Rocky and Alamein visit a small graveyard situated in the middle of an otherwise desolate patch of grass. They sit around the boys’ mother’s grave. For the first time in the film, there’s a sense of togetherness; it is not sad, because of the death of their mother or the fact that their father was not all that they thought he was, but it is hopeful because at last they are together.

Boy captures what it’s like to be young and hopeful with ease. What could be misrepresented as childlike naivety is alternatively depicted here — through Boy, through Rocky, arguably even through their father — as optimism in its purest form. These characters don’t believe the problems in their lives will magically work themselves out. They are often caught in explosive arguments and deep pits of disappointment; beaten, bruised, and let down; yet they still persist. With every hurdle, Waititi’s characters find a new way to chase a happy ending.

A young boy with dark hair holding up a cardboard sign that reads "welcome home dad" in crayon letters. He stands in the middle of the road, with grassland behind him.
Image courtesy of New Zealand Film Commission/NZ On Air

At the heart of Boy is a father-son tragedy gradually unfolding to reveal layers of deep-rooted issues. Waititi’s blending of light comedy with moments that punch you in the gut means it never feels too painful for too long. Even when Boy falls backwards off a bridge, closing his eyes and letting himself plummet into the murky water below, moments later he’s rescued by a warm character labelled affectionately by Rocky as “Weirdo”. What could be considered the film’s shortcoming (not letting dramatic moments fully play out), is what makes Waititi’s cinematic perspective comforting and unique; immersed in his writing, we feel safe.

All throughout Boy we are reminded that beneath the warm tone, there are difficult truths. Boy tells his classmates numerous times about his dad’s success, yet his father’s on screen failures are countless. Boy’s idealization of his father is less delusion and more a desperate attempt to hold onto the pure fatherly love he felt in the earliest years of his life; holding onto his childhood is all Boy knows. Waititi’s vision was an exploration of his own childhood enthusiasm and radiance. And whilst this clutching on to a nostalgic past is something that definitely adds to the hopeful tones of Boy, it’s the mutual understanding between father and sons that everyone has done their best,  in those final few moments, as they sit around the grave, that shows us there is hope in the future too. Boy is still a boy, and there’s so much ahead of him (not to mention the all-out post-credits musical tribute to Michael Jackson’s Thriller).