“Eagle vs. Shark” director Taika Waititi takes auds all the way to his hometown of Waihau Bay, New Zealand, to prove that eccentric childhoods are effectively universal with “Boy,” a let-down second feature expanded from his Oscar-nominated short, “Two Cars, One Night.” Apart from the local vistas and mostly Maori cast, Waititi has scrubbed away all culturally specific traits from his growing-up-Kiwi comedy, concentrating instead on the same things that might infatuate any other 1984-era moppet: a schoolyard crush, a missing dad and, above all, Michael Jackson. Without that arthouse-ready anthropological edge, however, “Boy’s” prospects look more cult than commercial.
Characters come first in Waititi’s stylized preadolescent flashback — which is a nice way of saying that the writer-director (who workshopped his script at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab back in 2005) hasn’t bothered to invent much of a plot. Instead, he offers a child’s-eye view of a world where adults are either absent or too busy to bother. Consider a “honky” schoolteacher, who tells our eponymous 11-year-old hero (James Rolleston) that he has potential, but begs off when the squirrelly kid asks him to define the word, saying, “It’s 3:30, mate. I’m off duty.”
Long since severed from their tribal past, these kids have names derived from pop culture — like Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest — and their conversation revolves mostly around music, movies and girls. Only Boy’s kid brother, Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), seems remotely spiritual, spending his free time at his mother’s grave (she died during childbirth) and daydreaming about magic powers (blending comicbook fantasy with a sense of Maori mysticism).
A certain heaviness lurks beneath the surface in “Boy,” though Waititi chooses to focus on the comedy (with random Jackson-inspired fantasy sequences thrown in for good measure). Where other movies weave amusing bits of nostalgia into the background, “Boy” uses costumes and art direction to ratchet the early-’80s kitsch to near-suffocating levels. It’s charming for all of five minutes, as a whirlwind montage at the beginning irreverently establishes Boy’s world. Like the junior fantabulist in Graham Greene’s “A Shocking Accident,” Boy invents wild stories about his father Alamein’s exploits, when in fact, his pop has spent a stretch in the slammer for robbing a gas station.
Waititi plays Alamein himself, a comic persona that blends Carl Weathers’ cool (in Boy’s eyes, at least) with almost Roberto Benigni-like silliness. The character hasn’t been gone long enough for auds to share Boy’s excitement at his return, and though the bonding that follows suits the kid fine (after all, Alamein has all the maturity of an 11-year-old), to anyone watching, it feels a bit like being stuck at an anarchic children’s birthday party.
Coarse language, frank sex talk and carefree drug use make “Boy” anything but kid-friendly, while the frustrating pace of Waititi’s already whittled-down cut seems too slow for its short running time. The material is clearly quite personal for the helmer, though it doesn’t feel particularly original, more like the poor cousin of “Son of Rambow” or “Nacho Libre,” with lo-fi production values to match.