Starring James Rolleston. Written and directed by Taika Waititi.PG. 87 min. Opens July 13.
The best decision that the New Zealand–based filmmaker Taika Waititi’s made for his sophomore feature, Boy, was the casting of his lead actor: James Rolleston has a winning and likeable presence as the nameless, dauntless, 11-year-old protagonist of this ’80s-set comedy. Waititi’s worst choice, meanwhile, was casting himself in the pivotal role of Boy’s absentee father, Alamein, whose unexpected return to his family in a coastal Maori community to find a stash of buried money simultaneously kick-starts the film’s plot and kills any comic momentum.
As long as we’re literally seeing Alamein through his son’s eyes, he’s amusing enough: In the absence of paternal guidance, Boy has glommed onto Michael Jackson as a father figure, and daydreams his dad into threadbare full-dress reenactments of various Thriller-era videos. The idea of a kid caught between his native culture and the juggernaut of American pop is a promising premise, but once Alamein actually shows up with his cut-rate motorcycle gang and Waititi starts mugging beneath a ridiculous pompadour, the film devolves into an atonally seriocomic farce with a predictable message: A boy needs a father, not a dope-smoking moron.
Boy has some stylistic brio—even if a few of the sight gags feel on loan from Wes Anderson—and a finely wrought sense of time and place. Waititi has some personality as a filmmaker; next time, he should leave himself offscreen.