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Sundance 2010: New Zealand comedy 'Boy,' the son of 'Son of Rambow'

January 31, 2010 |  3:01 pm


At film festivals, as with stand-up comedy and sniper fire, timing is everything. Three years ago at Sundance, a 1980s coming-of-age story out of Britain about a pop culture-enthralled young boy from a broken home was one of the most pursued and buzzed-about films of the festival. The picture, "Son of Rambow," was coveted by studio specialty divisions that saw in it an awards contender and a commercial hit, and wound up being bought for $8 million. (It then ran into rights issues, was seen by about 14 people and contributed to the demise of Paramount Vantage.)

Three years later, another 1980s coming-of-age-story about a pop culture-enthralled young boy from a broken home (this time out of New Zealand) came riding into Park City, Utah. It's titled, less fancifully, "Boy," and it's made by and stars the comic hyphenate Taika Waititi (who's worked on "Flight of the Conchords" and wrote and directed another New Zealand coming-of-age movie that came through Sundance, "Eagle vs. Shark"). The sweet but never cloying "Boy" concerns the adventures of an at once precocious and naive Maori 11-year-old whose ex-con father shows up one day, generating comedic and dramatic havoc for him and his family.

Unlike the preoccupation in "Rambow" with the titular, deliberately misspelled 80s action franchise, the boy here (named simply Boy) is obsessed with Michael Jackson. But the King of Pop basically serves the same purpose as Sylvester Stallone did in the earlier film: He's a link to a larger world for someone trapped, in many ways without even knowing it, in his own small one.

Waititi, who in person displays a stand-up performer's sensibility, fires in "Boy" a spear of social comment that he tips with comedy. Asked at the post-screening Q&A about how he wanted to depict the Maoris in his film, he responded, "We get portrayed two ways, like the [goons] in [the 1994 New Zealand family epic] 'Once Were Warriors.' Or we get shown as the blue people in 'Avatar.' I wanted to show that we are normal, awkward people -- indigenous geeks."

In many ways "Boy" is a better film than "Rambow." It doesn't try as hard to wear its '80s bona fides on its sleeve, it's funnier, and there's something culturally refreshing about watching the struggles of rural New Zealand instead of the more familiar travails of working-class England. But the merits of the two films are almost beside the point. What's interesting is how the first movie can create a storm at one festival and a second lands so quietly at another.

The reality, of course, is that neither reaction is entirely fair. "Rambow" was neither that great nor that commercial to merit the frenzy that it did in those post-"Little Miss Sunshine" days. And "Boy" is certainly better and has more promise than the current distributor cold shoulder, given in a time of mainstream fear for most things foreign or weird, would suggest.

Waititi himself poked fun at the current acquisition climate for movies like his. Asked what the film's distribution future held, he deadpanned, "Meet me out the back. [Pause.] I'll give you a DVD." That may seem like a poor substitute for a wide studio release. But given how the studios have handled tricky movies like this, a little grass-roots ingenuity might not be the worst idea either.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Boy." Credit: Sundance Film Festival