Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley
For most casual film fans the New Zealand cinema of the last decade-and-a-half has been defined by Peter Jackson and his adventures in Middle Earth. But this period has also seen the rise of one of the world’s more fun and interesting cinematic voices, writer-director Taika Waititi. Nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for his short film Two Cars, One Night, his 2010 feature Boy was up until recently New Zealand’s highest grossing domestic film, his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows won acclaim all over the world, and he has been tapped to enter the blockbuster big time as director of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. His current film, and the new highest grossing New Zealand film at the domestic box office, is his most complete, fully realised film to date, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) has spent his life bouncing from foster home to foster home. As child services officer Paula Hall (Rachel House) observes, he’s a “very bag egg,” with a track record of stealing, spitting, kicking things, breaking things and loitering. He finally finds a home with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her curmudgeonly husband Hec (Sam Neill), who live in an isolated farm on the edge of 1,000 hectares of bush, when a tragic event sees child services intent on taking Ricky back. Unwilling to re-enter the system, Ricky runs away into the bush. Hec soon finds him but having injured himself in the process they are forced to camp out for a while, in which time a manhunt begins on the assumption that Ricky has been kidnapped by his weird, and therefore probably perverted, foster father. With neither wanting to get caught they keep running and their continued evasion of the authorities captures the public’s imagination and turns them into folk heroes, with Ricky dubbing them ‘the wilderpeople’ after learning about the one thousand mile annual migration of the wildebeest.
While adapted from the much-loved kiwi novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, Waititi has dialed up the comedy and imbued the film with his own sensibility. A teller of tall tales, his films have a low-key fantasy quality to them despite their real world settings. So Hunt for the Wilderpeople becomes more than just a child’s adventure story. Broken down into chapters, it feels like a modern day Brothers Grimm tale. The further we get into the story, the more outrageous and unbelievable their adventure becomes, with SWAT teams and the military on their tail, and the more closely it seemingly adheres to how Ricky imagines things to be.
Some will remember Julian Dennison as the rotund friend from the Australian family hit Paper Planes. He gets his first shot at a lead role here and is simply fantastic. Stony faced yet charismatic and with great comic timing, Dennison is incredibly watchable. What Ricky lacks in self-awareness he makes up for with self-confidence. With all his bravado and talk of being a gangsta, Ricky is just not quite as cool as he thinks he is – a favourite character trait of Waititi’s. Dennison makes us really care about this character while still being able to laugh at him. Ricky is paired with the painfully self-aware bushman Hec, an incongruous match that is responsible for much of the film’s comedy and a surprising amount of its sweetness. Where so much of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is quirky and slightly heightened, Sam Neill underplays his character to great effect and the bond the two form is genuine and touching. At its heart, this odd-couple buddy adventure is the story of two outsiders who having only every found acceptance from one person now have to find acceptance in each other.
After Dennison, the other comedic discovery for international audiences will be Rachel House as the world’s most militaristic child services officer. Her motto, “No child left behind,” initially sounds noble but becomes increasingly sinister as we see the extraordinary lengths she will go to in order to capture Ricky. While she compares herself to the Terminator, a more apt comparison might be Tommy Lee Jones’s singularly driven US marshal in The Fugitive. She has her own offsider in the form of her dimwitted police escort Andy (Oscar Kightley), and between them they ensure the humour does not drop off when our glance turns away from Ricky.
While Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an intimate, human story, it none the less possesses a greater scale than we have seen from Waititi before. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne gives us shots that remind us of the vastness of the bush that they call their home, and as the film escalates towards its climax we get some reasonably major action set pieces, including multiple flipping cars and even a tank. But it never gets carried away and forgets what it is. A sweet and sincere film, yet still hilariously funny, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an absolute delight.
Review by Duncan McLean
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