Boy ★★★½

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Film #2 of 30 in my March Around The World | 2017 Challenge (New Zealand)
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At last summer's Las Vegas Film Festival, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" (2016) completely won my heart, so this acclaimed earlier dramedy from writer-director Taika Waititi was an easy choice as my New Zealand entry for this year's world tour. The story is set on North Island's Waihau Bay in 1984, and it follows an 11-year-old Maori youth (James Rolleston), who goes by the nickname "Boy," although he is really named Alamein after his absentee father (Waititi). We soon learn that his mum, Joanie Ranginui (Ngapaki Emery), died in childbirth in 1977.

Boy lives on a farm with his younger brother Rocky aka Egg (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) and grandmother Nan (Mavis Paenga), along with his same-age cousin Kelly (Cherilee Martin) and her three younger sisters. Boy has a passion for all things Michael Jackson, and it is his fondest hope that his successful, world-traveling father will someday return home and take him to see the King of Pop in concert.

Outside the home, Boy's best friend is Dallas (Haze Reweti), who has two younger sisters, Dynasty (Moerangi Tihore) and Falcon Crest (Montana Te Kani-Williams). Boy's classmate crush is a teenage girl named Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), who won't give him the time of day, and his rival at school is a bully named Kingi (Manihera Rangiuaia), who wears an MJ Thriller jacket and has an older brother Holden (Darcy Ray Flavell-Hudson) to intimidate those he doesn't like.

One evening, while Gran is away for a week in Wellington for a funeral, who shows up at the farm but dear old Dad and his two trouble-making buddies Chuppa (Cohen Holloway) and Juju (Pana Hema Taylor). Pops does his best to impress the kids with his gifts, muscle car and knowledge of movies, but his main purpose in returning is to recover a bag of cash he buried before being arrested and doing hard time.

Others in the cast include Rachel House as shopkeeper Aunty Gracey, the sister of Boy's deceased mother, as well as Craig Hall as the Pākehā school principal Mr Langston who grew up with Boy's parents, and Waihoroi Shortland as a strange, childish man called Weirdo, who lives near a bridge and befriends Rocky. There's also a goat named Leaf that plays a key role.

Despite all the humor, there's a dark undercurrent running throughout the film -- a father's betrayal, a child's loneliness, the false promise of a better tomorrow. At Berlin, Waititi won the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prix for Best Feature Film. At Sundance, this received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize in the category World Cinema - Dramatic. It may not be quite up to the level of "Wilderpeople," but it certainly points in that direction, well worth watching.

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