Eternal Boyhood: The Films of Taika Waititi
Two boys sit in the front seat of a parked car. They’re bored out of their minds, so they start talking to a girl in another car beside them. Their parents have left them alone for an unknown time in these cars as they escape to a hotel bar. Implications hang over the scene, never explicitly stated, but leaving an air of melancholy over each short conversation. Yet, there’s no sorrow or shyness in any of these chatty children about their situation, only independence and confidence exuding as they bicker and call each other “egg” a lot.
And just like that, the 2004 short film Two Cars, One Night becomes a coincidentally perfect capsule of Taika Waititi’s work. His films feel familiar and comforting as they walk the delicate tightrope of creating characters that are young (or, sometimes, just young-at-heart) and naïve while also being completely autonomous, fully-realized characters. No matter how bizarre or quirky they might seem at first glance, they inevitably win the audience over with some good old charm and a sharp wit as they navigate Waititi’s tales that seem to effortlessly waver between utterly heartbreaking and side-splittingly hilarious.
Following a live action short film Oscar nomination for Two Cars, One Night, Waititi released two more short films in 2005. One was the first, shorter version of his later feature, What We Do in the Shadows. It’s a much free and loose, proof-of concept approach to what became a nearly perfect comedy.
The second short film released was Tama Tū. In this single location short film about Māori soldiers waiting for action in World War II, Waititi blends the impending doom of war with his irreverent sense of humor adeptly, all without having the characters utter a single word. His skill as a visual filmmaker blossoms in this short and begins to take centerstage in his work as he comfortably settles into his directing style.
His feature debut came in the form of 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark, an exceedingly quirky little romantic comedy about two misfits (Jemaine Clement and Loren Horsley) and their rocky relationship as they struggle with their own eccentricities and neuroses. It’s a fun movie, for sure, but, on the surface level, it seems to fall into that unfortunate sub-genre of rom-coms where the guy gets to act obnoxiously to the girl (and just obnoxiously in general) and still wins her over by the end. The more time you spend with the characters, though, the more you realize it’s a little more complicated than that. Jarrod is definitely a childish jerk with a serious case of arrested development that left his brain stranded somewhere in his pubescent years, but he comes from a family with some heavy trauma in their past and a huge shadow that Jarrod is constantly living under. He’s still irredeemably intolerable at moments, but compellingly so. Clement plays him with the same relish for the cringe-inducing that follows him throughout his career, but it’s never too much. The scale of tragedy and comedy tips back and forth but never quite tips over to one side or the other. It comes off with a sense of reality that’s missing from all those other romcoms with a ridiculously douchey lead.
From this budding partnership with Jemaine Clement, Waititi went on to direct a few episodes of the classic HBO series, Flight of the Conchords. His episodes included some of the most memorable moments of the show, including the controversial finale. The slightly off-putting humor and catchy songs gave Flight of the Conchords its dedicated following, but the intense amount of writing, in both the songs and episodes, exhausted Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie after just two seasons, and the show ended in 2009.
The following year, Waititi released his second feature-length film, Boy, at the Sundance Film Festival. A New Zealand release followed shortly, wherein Boy broke the box office record for a New-Zealand-made film. And rightfully so, because Boy is a wonderful, heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale about a Māori boy, mainly referred to as, well, “Boy”. He’s really named after his deadbeat dad, Alamein, who’s played by Waititi himself. The story revolves around Alamein returning to Boy and his brother, Rocky, after having just gotten released from jail. Predictably, he’s not there for the wholesome reasons one might hope, but rather to dig up some old buried treasure he left in a field on their property. The film bounces back and forth from light-hearted moments, like Boy’s fanaticism for Michael Jackson, complete with fantasies of Alamein in full Thriller garb, to emotional flashbacks that tell Boy and Rocky’s unfortunate backstory. It’s another tale of two mostly independent boys running around, talking to girls, and being occasionally mischievous, all with the constant cognizance of absent, or just plain irresponsible, parents hanging over each scene.
But when it comes down to the points in the film where you’d expect a cheery reunion or forgiveness from sons to their father, Boy doesn’t take that easy way out. There is no big teary embracing when Alamein appears, only some uncomfortable hellos and some even more awkwardness over tea. Boy still dreams of a life with Alamein until their climactic confrontations, and, to an extent, so does the audience. Even so, no true emotional catharsis is truly given on-screen after all of Alamein’s frustrating manipulations until the final frames of the film.
The heartache of Boy leaves a lasting impact even through its many laughs, and that really comes from the deeply personal nature of the story. Waititi’s childhood fixations and fascinations are woven into the characters and journeys of Boy and Alamein, from that fanaticism for Michael Jackson, to a bizarre fascination with drawing swastikas, to even an element as simple as living in an extremely rural part of New Zealand. His heart is in the film, and you can feel it beating beneath the surface. Boy is a wholesome, intimate experience that’s deeply rewarding, especially if you watch through the credits and get treated to the cast’s performance of a Thriller-inspired haka.
After Boy’s success at film festivals and at the New Zealand box office, Waititi did some television episode directing, both on American and New Zealand shows, as well as a substantial acting role in the often-mocked superhero flop, Green Lantern. All this time was also spent touching up and fully realizing his next feature, based on his 2005 short film, What We Do in the Shadows.
Co-directed with Clement, What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary about four vampires who live together in a rundown house outside of Wellington in the months leading up to a yearly event, The Unholy Masquerade. The laughs come non-stop in this vignette-y comedy, which made it a much more accessible and commercial movie to international audiences than Boy or Eagle vs. Shark. (Of course, the vampire fixation of the time, post-Twilight, sure didn’t hurt either.) Waititi’s visual style evolves dramatically in this film, as he uses multiple, fantastic practical effects, as well as CGI that’s perfectly used in wonderful ways. There are so, so many quotable lines and instantly iconic moments in What We Do in the Shadows that it almost instantly reached a similar cult status to Flight of the Conchords. The film also garnered many awards and recognition, including ranking as the 62nd best comedy of all time according to a recent BBC critics poll, in which it beat out other comedies like Ghostbusters, The Princess Bride, and Hot Fuzz.
Now, don’t let the premise and comedic acclaim fool you; Waititi’s themes of boyhood and tragicomedy are still at play in What We Do in the Shadows, even if they don’t take center stage. Each character has their own element of youth that’s stuck with them through their hundreds of years of vampirism. Taika Waititi’s Viago is the picture of adorable naivety, Clement’s Vladislav is sex-obsessed and emotionally immature, Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon is irresponsible in almost every respect, and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer’s Nick is, well, basically still a teenager. Yet, they still have their issues they’re working through, too. Nick and Deacon, the younger vampires, are still coming to terms with what they are. Vladislav has a hell of an ex-girlfriend situation he’s trying to navigate. Viago lost the love of his life years before and still pines for her, even though she’s found someone else and has aged far past him. And, lest we forget, they lose their mentor in a fatal sunlight accident and very nearly lose their best friend in the whole world, Stu the software analyst.
Now, of course, this isn’t the same level of drama that we get in his other features thus far, but it’s a damn delightful departure. Each and every moment of What We Do in the Shadows flows naturally, thanks to some really brilliant editing and fake documentary cinematography. If there’s any Taika Waititi movie that’s absolutely required viewing for any viewer, it’s this one.
After the success and attention earned internationally by What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi took a pass at the script for Moana. He later confirmed that pretty much the entirety of his draft was unused, but his influence still feels present in the film, through voice roles from regular collaborators. Afterwards, Waititi truly returned to his roots in every way for his 2016 film, which, like Boy, premiered at Sundance.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is based on Wild Pork and Watercress, a popular New Zealand coming-of-age novel. The story focuses on Ricky Baker, a boy who’s being moved around in the foster system until he gets his last chance to fit in with Hector (played by Sam Neill, in a brilliantly crotchety performance) and Bella (charmingly played by actress Rima Te Wiata). Hector (or rather, Hec) and Bella live far out in the country of New Zealand on their farm, right on the edge of the massive New Zealand bush. After an unfortunate turn of events, Ricky runs away into the bush, Hec follows, and soon, they’re the subject of a nationwide manhunt. They’re pursued by tons of law enforcement, led by an intensely motivated child services agent, Paula. Paula has many of the best lines and moments in the film, on account of the brilliant comic timing by Rachel House, a frequent actor in Waititi’s projects.
Upon release in New Zealand, Waititi broke the New Zealand box office record again for a locally made film. Wilderpeople became one of the highest reviewed movies in 2016, and rightfully so, as it’s all of Waititi’s developing ideas executed to perfection. Both Ricky and Hec are characters with such potential for Waititi’s brand of storytelling. Ricky has a history of dealing with the loss of important people in his life, and Hec is an illiterate ex-convict who’s heartbroken and consistently grumpy about every imaginable thing. The developing dynamic between them grows naturally and beautifully into the found family for which they’ve secretly hoped. That flawless blend of humor and sorrow is sewn seamlessly into their relationship as they come to terms to what’s happened and what continues to happen to them. They wander through the dense forest, occasionally running into the police and other dangers, both natural and man-made. As days turn into weeks turn into months of wandering, they become so close that it’s gutting to watch them get divided again as the film’s end draws near.
It’s a beautifully realized tale of the joy and grief that are so innately intertwined in both family and boyhood. And that’s really what sets Waititi’s work apart. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill coming-of-age stories. These are expertly crafted, extremely personal films that resonate deeply in audiences across the world. Everyone is so aware of the impermanence of childhood and that little loss of joy that comes with each stage of growing up, but in each one, we can peek back at a time where life was simpler through new, fresh eyes and revisit childhood over and over again.
Thor: Ragnarok is out in theaters. The Waitit-directed shorts, Team Thor: Part 1 & Part 2 are available on YouTube.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is available through Hulu.
What We Do in the Shadows and Boy are available through Amazon Prime streaming.
Eagle vs. Shark is available through Netflix streaming.
Two Cars, One Night is available on YouTube and Vimeo.
Tama Tū is available at NZOnScreen.
The short film What We Do in the Shadows is available on YouTube.
Flight of the Conchords is available through HBO Go, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime streaming.