Originally, I wanted to write a simple review about an important movie that collected accolades left and right in 2010, when it was released. For one, at the Berlin International Film Festival, the film won the prize of the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk, a humanitarian organization that is advocating children’s rights and fighting child poverty. I must say that all the awards and nominations are well deserved. So, what is my problem, you might ask?
The film is so good, I want it to do more than it already does. I think I just might be completely unreasonable.
I will dive in medias res: More than anything, Boy is about failures. Adults are failing children, New Zealand’s government is failing the Maori population. Unfortunately, the film never takes a real political stand, and the redemption and reconciliation come all too easily: all the difficulty is glossed over with camp. Hell, there is a Bollywood style ending. While it might be cute and all, the cast dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller video choreography, it’s beyond derivative. Regardless of whether it’s homage to Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) or a five a.m. wouldn’t-this-be-neat idea, it adds very little to the movie. Everything that has gravitas is turned into a joke, because audiences surely wouldn’t want to be bothered with any uncomfortable topics.
There are also other considerations. By catering to our middle-class tastes, Taika Waititi created a well-crafted compromise. Still, I am extremely pleased that a New Zealander caught-on to the Hollywood shtick and reaped recognition, as well as box office success for his efforts. Waititi (who is a Sundance Writers Lab alumnus) has written, directed the piece, and starred as one of the main characters, Alamein, Boy’s Father. So, you may ask what compromise I am talking about, if it seems he had all the creative control he could possibly ask for. Well, it goes back to Umberto Eco’s Apocalittici e integrati (which apparently has never been translated into English in its entirety, I wonder why), a really great analysis of modern popular culture. Waititi’s characters are types, not real people. The real emotions and the real narrative are mythologized, and so lose the sharp edges. Waititi is serving mass audiences, only providing an illusion that his movie is somehow different from the mainstream. “Quirky” has been a popular term, associated with this category of pop-culture.
I am not saying that pop culture is bad. Otherwise, I would not be writing for an online media magazine. Lately, I just have been rather frustrated by what we term independent cinema. Independent has become a meaningless adjective. If it’s meant to denote filmmaking outside the system of the big established studios, then we should be precise, and say, it’s the waiting room it connotes. There is little innovation going on, no serious experimentation with the narrative, the camera work does not differ often from big production movies: the toolbox is the same. Mostly, the filmmakers adhere to the existing canon. A difference presents itself at the level of personal tastes: soundtrack using music that is just aching to be “discovered” – a different aesthetic displaying objects that are not yet flooding the markets. It might seem they address important topics the big studios won’t touch. But these are not innovators; they are designers testing a new product release; they are trying to sell to fellow early adopters. That is after all, who the festival crowd is. There is no radical departure from the established format.
The genre of dramedy has been unleashed upon us from this incubator as a new standard format variety. I used to love Wes Anderson. After Juno, I am not sure I can ever watch his films. I realized one thing: no matter how significant an issue, dramedy renders everything toothless. Let’s talk about difficult topics, but let’s not upset anyone. We should make the horrible things seem funny, gloss them over and dress them up, it ain’t no thing. That way, we can all still be friends in the end.
Is this detrimental to the audiences, to the film industry, to society at large? Not as long as we realize what we are watching is not a piece of art, just entertainment. As long as we understand that awards reward conformity. They reward standardized work that is catering to the preservation of the canon. Keeping the consumer in mind, this is also a way to reinforce what is considered “good taste,” as in what is acceptable to discuss by the water cooler without ruffling any feathers. Let’s not forget, festivals and award ceremonies are sales venues.
As far as the subject matter goes, the content is certainly there. Boy is an intimate film about a good-for-nothing father, who after incarceration returns home not to see his children (effectively orphaned for all intents and purposes) – but to try and locate the loot he buried before being imprisoned. While he childishly argued with his mother over the phone, saying these kids have so much more than he ever did, I gasped. “You have it easy” should not be a parent’s complaint. As one of the characters in Kieslowski’s (The) Decalogue eloquently states, perhaps our purpose in life is to make it better for those who come after us.
Selfish sentiment communicated by Alamein in a comedic setting, should really be a sufficient motivation to see this film. There are so many significant things uttered, so many reasons to pay attention. The plight of the Maori population is touched upon, but never explicit. It could be praised as extremely skillful, or noted as a missed opportunity. Waititi got his foot in the door to voice a concern. But much like the referenced Slumdog, this could fall into the category of “poverty porn” where middle class is reassured that they are doing quite well, by viewing a display of just how inconvenient an existence they could lead.
So, what can I say? James Rolleston (in the lead as Boy) is great, fun to watch, sweet, and sure to become a lady-killer one of these days. Taika Waititi can write, direct, and has things to say. Boy is an entertaining feature with many layers, well worth your time. Charming, one should say.
But that is ultimately what is so maddening. If I refer to this film that way, if I call it “charming,” “heartwarming” or “cute,” I will play the role of the middle-aged nanny patting a child over the head, while she really doesn’t give a damn. But, this is a case of the creator voluntarily leaning in for that patronizing pat. It is not a rare instance, by any means. Still, as an audience, we should finally start saying that we need more. We want a toothbrush in the bathroom, something to stay with us.