"Boy" is set in New Zealand in a Maori village in 1984 near the Bay of Plenty. The writer-director Taika Waititi, who also costars, doesn't make a big scenic deal about this bedraggled, picturesque location. It's simply the place where his story plays out. Like everything else about "Boy," this approach has a refreshing nonchalance.
The title character, whom everyone calls Boy (James Rolleston), is an 11-year-old who, with his grandmother, helps look after his two younger siblings. Boy's errant father (Waititi) has recently returned to the fold while the grandmother is away, and although his children idolize him, we can see through his posturings right away. A would-be gang leader, he's not much more mature than Boy, and his attempts to be fatherly are mostly pathetic.
And yet, in some way, he cares about being a good father even though he doesn't have the remotest idea how to make that happen. Boy, in turn, sees his father both for what he is and for what Boy would like him to be. In a series of brief fantasy interludes he imagines him as a samurai, a warrior, and, most impressively, as Boy's hero, Michael Jackson.
Waititi the actor often overdoes the scampering and mugging. It's not necessary for him to play up the father's goofy irresponsibility to such an extent. It's enough that we can see how he fails to connect up with Boy's dreams. What makes the film touching beyond its rather simple scenario is that Boy, despite all the evidence on display, still thinks his father is a hero. When reality doesn't confirm his fantasies, he's fine with just the fantasy.
Rolleston is an energetic and responsive little actor, and he turns Boy into a sort of Maori Tom Sawyer. Boy's little brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) is a marvelous counterpart. Since their mother died giving birth to him, Rocky believes he has magical powers. It's his way of coping with a guilt he cannot begin to comprehend. He also fancies himself as much his father's son as Boy.
There's a funny scene between the two kids where they argue over who is more like their old man. The truth is, they're like their father would have been if he had a spine. In one sequence, he hits a goat with his car driving home at night with his boys and his mates and refuses to check up on the damage he's done. Later, the two boys make it back to the goat and tend to it. It's a simple scene with much resonance.
I don't want to make too much of a case for "Boy," which could have gone much deeper into the story's sadnesses and moments of exhilaration. But it's a lovely oddity, and one that will probably hit home for preteen audiences all over the world. Grade: B (Unrated.)