Boy tells the story of an 11-year-old growing up in rural 1980s New Zealand amid harsh circumstances. His mother died giving birth to his younger brother, who remains haunted by guilt. His father is a deadbeat wanderer who goes missing for years at a time. His best friend is literally a goat. And when his grandmother is called away to a distant funeral, he's left in charge of a bustling household of cousins young enough to need diapers (plus food and shelter).
But out of this grim Kiwi spin on Home Alone, Boy explodes in a hundred directions that are the opposite of grim. "Welcome to my interesting world," says Boy, introducing the film's kid's-eye view while communicating our narrator's inherent innocence. Unlike the viewer, our hero lacks the life experience to recognize his circumstances as harsh—this is simply his life, and he offers it up to us as innocently as an 11-year-old would, using the tools at an 11-year-old's disposal: cartoonish fantasies, scratchy illustrations, cut-and-paste collages, and charmingly simplistic explanations.
At the center of Boy's imaginary life is Michael Jackson, who towers over the cultural life of the kids in New Zealand's Waihau Bay just as he did in America. Invoked repeatedly in a Kiwi dialect that makes him "Mahkul Jekson," the Thriller-era King of Pop is never far from Boy's thoughts, hovering like a superhero ready to make instant magic (or even just sense) of Boy's life experiences. The return of his long-lost, criminally irresponsible father plays out like the video for "Billie Jean," with the returning hero's every step lighting up squares of the sidewalk, while a follow-up bar fight morphs into the gang-related gyrations of "Beat It." (Jackson's not the only US export inordinately influencing life in Waihau Bay—a trio of neighborhood siblings are named Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest.)
From its opening images, Boy overflows with a childlike charm so naturally inspired it seems effortless, but of course, successfully capturing and maintaining such a style requires a specific brilliance, and writer/director Taika Waititi has it. His movie moves like a kid moves—rushing forward impatiently here, sulking silently there, and ready to explode into fantasy at any moment—and it had me alternately grinning like an idiot at the story and marveling at the stylistic accomplishment. Helping immensely is the gifted child cast, which Waititi steers toward a naturalism that is beautiful to behold. As Boy, James Rolleston anchors the film as securely as Robert De Niro anchors Taxi Driver, with a fraction of the effort. As Boy's younger brother, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu offers an immaculately childish flat affect that will break your heart. But it's the one-of-a-kind tone of the whole film that you'll remember most. It's a candy-colored crowd-pleaser packed with deep, dark substance, and it's just about perfect.