Taika Waititi’s Boy
You might know director Taika Waititi from his 2017 commercial hit, Thor: Ragnarok, but I learned about him a few years ago with his 2014 movie What We Do in the Shadows. Waititi’s films are always funny, and even at their most absurd, they always touch on meaningful human topics like our need for companionship, love, and acceptance.
The movie I want to talk to you about today is Boy. It is the tale of a kid who lives in a Maori village in New Zealand, but it feels so close to home.
Boy takes place in 1984 in rural New Zealand. The main character, an 11-year-old boy called, well, Boy, longs for the return of his long-absent father. When his grandmother leaves for a funeral in Wellington, he is responsible for feeding and taking care of his younger brother, five cousins, and their goat, Leaf.
The movie starts with Boy making a school presentation in which he informs us of his obsession with Michael Jackson, and he innocently, and subtly reveals the ugliness of poverty in the small Maori community. For example, in this montage, we learn that only one of his friends has a job: she harvests marijuana for her father. He also implies that, in his family, his aunt is the only one with a job.
His father, Alamein, returns home from prison while the grandmother is away, and we soon realize that he is not much more mature than Boy. Alamein arrives with two buddies, a gang of three called “The Crazy Horses.” He is playful, fun, and quick to anger; a volatile mix which makes for hilarious, or life-changing moments.
The reason I love this film is that it explores the intersection between poverty and masculinity, and lays bare the tragedy of the loss of potential that comes when the two meet, and the ripple effects the clash causes in everyone around them—it reminds me of my father and brothers.
When I was a child, and I lived in Southern California, the myth was that Black and Hispanic men were immoral, aggressive and violent by nature. That’s why they formed gangs, peddled drugs, made babies and abandoned them. Alamein is Maori, a marginalized indigenous community of New Zealand, and he fits the aforementioned stereotype exactly; he has all the self-control of a horny baboon as if the testosterone coursing through his body has doomed him from the start. But testosterone doesn’t work that way. Testosterone makes men more likely to do whatever they need to do to hold on to high status when challenged. In contemporary society, the problem is not the hormone, but rather the values and rewards placed on aggression.
Our minds, like our bodies, need certain things to thrive. We need love and safety, and when those needs are met we become compassionate and empathetic people. Boy has received those things from his grandmother, but when Alamein arrives and he doesn’t live up to the fantasy Boy had built around him, his disappointment leads him to develop the opposite traits: he withdraws from his friends and numbs the warring factions within with alcohol and weed. The girls, Kelly and Dynasty, are more skeptical than Boy; they are cynical because they’ve accepted that men are transient and unstable. But Boy has to wrestle with the values he learned from his grandmother, and his wish to define himself as a man.
Waititi juxtaposes these issues against the rugged, blue and green landscapes, and the breathtaking expanse of the horizon, which magnifies the feelings of insignificance of the main characters, and the humiliation of being born poor in a society predicated on competition, individualism, and our mutual exploitation; in other words, in a socio-economic system that goes against our most fundamental human needs.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The things Boy and Alamein get up to—like Boy giving himself a hickey with a vacuum cleaner, or Alamein giving the boys tattoos—in order to appear cool and macho are hysterical, and the ingenuity and good humor in the teeth of the stupefying odds against them is life-affirming. You feel for them because, ironically, their macho posturing betrays their need for love, acceptance, and a father figure.