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Taika Waititi’s Boy may well be the saddest comedy I’ve ever seen. Hmn, maybe I should put that another way: For a comedy, Boy might be the saddest film I’ve ever seen.

Consistently hilarious throughout, Boy steers a very careful course once it becomes clear that there is a very real heartache behind the laughter. A less confident filmmaker wouldn’t have even tried to perform that conjuring trick but Waititi turns out to have the talent to pull it off.

It’s 1984 and in the tiny East Cape village of Waihau Bay 11-year-old Boy (born as Alamein, after his father) has been left in charge of the whanau while his Nana goes to Wellington for a tangi. His little brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) and his young cousins are looking to him for some parenting but the unexpected arrival of Alamein (Taika Waititi) sends all those plans packing.

Alamein is a petty criminal and fabulist and Boy (winningly played by James Rolleston) is a chip off the old block, creating sensational stories about his father’s feats to keep the older kids at bay. With the other two members of his Crazy Horses gang, Alamein sets out to find the money he buried before his trip to jail and to avoid reconnecting with the children who remind him of sadder times.

Someone should programme a double-feature of Boy and the documentary This Way of Life — it would be very interesting indeed. Before I leave the heartily recommended Boy, though, I want to give a shout-out to the casting director Tina Cleary who has worked some miracles finding the on-screen talent, particularly Rolleston (who was discovered only a week before shooting started) and Eketone-Whitu who is very quietly the heart and soul of the film.

It’s a week of films about male parenting — Scott Hicks’ Australian drama The Boys Are Back is also about a family growing up without a mother. Clive Owen is sports journalist Jack Warr (a thinly disguised interpretation of the author of the original memoir, Simon Carr) who has to take on all responsibility for son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) when his wife (Laura Fraser) dies of cancer. Complicating things further is the arrival of his older son Harry from England, needing a decent male role model but finding his Dad to be ill-equipped for the task.

Sensitively handled, with mostly good performances, The Boys Are Back restores my faith in Scott Hicks (Shine) a little after a terrible run in Hollywood including the hideous No Reservations. Owen lets a little more emotion in than he normally allows for and benefits greatly as a result.

Handily for a reviewer’s segue, male parenting issues are also to the fore in the animated children’s romp How to Train Your Dragon. Nerdy engineer Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a terrible disappointment to his father Stoick, leader of the Vikings protecting their unpromising island home from marauding dragons. After commencing a “Keep Gerard Butler Off Our Screens” campaign three weeks ago I have to say I’m feeling a little sore that he’s back yet again as the voice of Stoick, this time using his natural Scottish accent. At least I don’t have to look at him.

Designed as a kind of cross between Asterix and Avatar, How to Train Your Dragon works best when it is up in the air and soaring with the dragons and is less successful down on the ground. Kids will like it though, and it doesn’t require the 3D if you don’t want to pay the glasses tax.

Finally, and based on a bonkers but plausible story, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a sporadically funny version of Jon Ronson’s book of the same name (itself based on a series of UK television documentaries). The facts of the film are, indeed, ripe for ridicule: a New Age Colonel tries to inspire a Vietnam-brutalised US military to start a New Earth Army that would harness the chakra-aligning techniques and higher mental powers of an advanced consciousness to bring peace to the world. These higher skills would include walking through walls and killing people with thought alone (hence the experiments on the unfortunate animals of the title).

The problem is that a fictional narrative has been wrapped around the crazy facts, and that narrative just isn’t strong enough. A great cast including George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, is left to make their own fun which isn’t quite enough.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 March, 2010.