Set among the Maori people of New Zealand in ancient times - the early 1980s, when Michael Jackson's Thriller and Steven Spielberg's E.T. ruled the world - Taika Waititi's Boy is a charmer, a funny and affecting coming-of-age story rendered with heart, and with nuttiness.
The Boy of the title - played with disarming unself-consciousness by James Rolleston - is a fantasy-prone preteen who lives with his younger brother, Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), their grandma, and a goat in the ridiculously picturesque Waihau Bay. His dad (Waititi) is just out from a long stint in jail, and arrives home with a couple of numskull sidekicks to be greeted by the kids he doesn't know, and who don't know him. In fact, Boy has been spinning elaborate fantasy scenarios about his incarcerated pop, imagining him as a globe-trotting action hero. The reality is sorely different, and the source of considerable inner conflict.
Waititi made 2007's eccentric love tale, Eagle vs. Shark, and like his debut feature this one incorporates purposefully primitive animated sequences and loads of (retro) pop-cult references. If the filmmaker relies too much on the deadpan and the arch, Boy is balanced out by Rolleston's smart, soulful performance.
Boy begins with an epigram from E.T.: "You could be happy here . . . . We could grow up together." That's what the film is about - finding happiness, growing up, feeling like a stranger in a strange world. And doing some Michael Jackson moonwalk moves while you're at it.