The key word in Boy is “potential.” It’s repeatedly spoken aloud by the title character (James Rolleston), an eleven-year-old Maori living in Waihau Bay, New Zealand in 1984. Initially, he has no idea what it means. All the same, he thinks he has plenty of it. From our perspective, his circumstances suggest otherwise; he lives a meager existence on a farm with his grandmother, Nan (Mavis Paenga), his kid brother, Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu), a pet goat named Leaf, and several cousins. All he really has going for him is his love of Michael Jackson and memories of his father. Even then, they aren’t real memories. They’re merely tall tales Boy has invented as a coping mechanism for his absence. In reality, his father has been out of the picture for several years, having been sent to prison for robbing the local gas station.
When Nan goes off to Wellington to attend a funeral, Boy is left in charge. This would be right around the start of the summer holiday, at which point he first hears one of his teachers use the word “potential” and becomes fixated on it. Not long after, three men drive up to Boy’s home. One of them is his long-lost father, Alamein (Taika Waititi, also the film’s writer and director). Boy is immediately taken by him. He has a cool black car. He has started his own gang called The Crazy Horses. True, it currently only has three members, but at least Alamein gets to wear a badass leather jacket with the logo on the back. He likes Michael Jackson too, but he’s an even bigger fan of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and he will spend a great deal of time professing his admiration for E.T.’s magic healing touch.
At this point, Boy has looked up the word “potential” in the dictionary. All the fancy words used in the definition confuse him, and yet he seems to get the general idea. With his father back in his life, he believes he has finally found his potential: To be exactly like him. Alamein eventually says that he doesn’t wish to be addressed as Dad but as Shogun, like a Japanese warrior. In response, Boy wishes to be addressed as Little Shogun. The two will for a time come together as they dig holes in a nearby field looking for what Alamein calls buried treasure. We already know that, in reality, Alamein and his men are looking for the spot in which they buried the money they stole from the gas station. His problem is that he can’t remember how many paces he went into the field, nor the fencepost from which he started.
What kind of potential does Alamein have? The audience is not made to see him in the same way as Boy – an aggrandized figure at the center of several amateur reenactments of Michael Jackson music videos. Instead, he’s made to be seen as an opportunist, a buffoon, a manipulator, a marijuana smoker, a hard drinker, and generally someone who is dangerous and unreliable. Boy will eventually pick up on this, forcing him to reassess his own potential. No matter what part of the world you’re from, this is called growing up. Simultaneously, he will go through all the typical adolescent trials and tribulations, including trying to impress the girl of his dreams (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), inflating his reputation by passing off the vacuum hose mark on his chest as a hickey, and avoiding the local bully and his big brother. Alamein will occasionally offer advice in these areas, even though he has no idea what he’s doing or saying.
Meanwhile, Rocky is the subject of an absorbing yet oddly disconnected subplot in which he befriends a local drifter Boy has dubbed Weirdo (Waihoroi Shortland), who spends all his time crouched over as he looks for things in the dirt. We don’t know if he’s homeless, mentally challenged, both, or neither. All we do know is that he’s the only person willing to indulge Rocky in his belief that he possesses super powers – the ones bestowed by his mother as she died giving birth to him. There’s a touching moment when he approaches his father, puts his fingers on his forehead, and apologizes for killing his mother. It’s unclear whether or not Alamein blames Rocky for her death, as he never treats Rocky any better or worse than Boy.
Rocky is a source of frustration for Boy, although there seems to be no reason for it apart from the convention that older brothers automatically hate their younger brothers. Perhaps it’s the fact that Rocky sees the world differently, namely as animated childhood doodles on sheets of college-ruled paper. Indeed, he spends a lot of time drawing pictures, mostly as his mother’s gravesite. Does the word “potential” apply to him too? Surely it must apply to everyone. The message of Boy, I believe, is that we each possess positive and negative attributes, and that the key to a successful life is finding the right balance. The film isn’t so conventional as to show this happening with any of the characters; we merely see the process of living from day to day and taking things as they come. As they say, it’s not the destination that’s important, but the journey.
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