Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016.
Written and Directed by Taika Waititi.
Starring Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House and Rhys Darby.
A national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush.
There is a definite temptation to begin this review by writing (or at least trying) a verdict in haiku, the traditional Japanese way of writing poems that don’t rhyme but are nevertheless powerful and moving. To save many embarrassments and ridicule, such smarts won’t be attempted here but in the hands of acclaimed filmmaker and writer Taika Waititi, they do precisely what they are supposed to do and then some. Fresh from his acclaimed 2014 comedy What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi takes a break from the shenanigans with Jermaine Clement and company to head into the wilderness with his latest comic adventure.
Opening on the vast greenery outbacks of New Zealand, Waititi takes us into the thick trees and forest wildlife to meet Ricky Baker (Dennison), a big city kid who has been in and out of foster care and “juvey” for a few years as the social services try desperately to rehome him before his reckless behaviour gets him into more serious trouble. He is taken in by Bella (Wiata) who after never being able to be a mother herself sees through Baker’s is unconcerned by Ricky’s jaded past and welcomes him with open arms. Her husband Hector (Neill) is less enthused by the situation, weary that the new houseguest will disrupt his peaceful golden time chopping wood and sitting and his unwelcome tone soon sees Ricky try unsuccessfully to run away on his first night.
Waititi has slowly been making a big name for himself both in at home and in the international film world, so much so that Marvel have done what they tend to do best and snap up talented filmmakers to take on some of their biggest adventures. Thor: Ragnarok is awaiting the director next and it’s not a leap of faith to suggest that if he continues such a rich vein of form and is allowed room to manoeuvre his sensibilities in the right way that the third trip to Asgard should be one of the best yet.
On his third film, Waititi has refined his humour and storytelling to near-perfect level: his deadpan ways are beautifully connected to the most human moments of a genuine father-son narrative and emotions that flow gently but powerful underneath the funnies. Accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack and some hilarious film in-jokes Lord of the Rings to Terminator gets a little rimming, Wilderpeople barely misses a beat.
If there is a problem with the film is in its length which even a lean-looking 100 minutes is a little too expansive, while some of the supporting characters, namely Rhys Darby’s Psycho Sam and Rachel House’s social worker Paula Hall, becomes stale quite quickly into proceedings.
But it’s in the performances of Dennison and Neill where the true spark of the film lies with both producing some superb performances, Thrown together by circumstance, the two are the most unlikely of odd couples to root for as they set off on their quest to find their place and walk the road most travelled. While on paper the combination of the two may seem unorthodox with grumpy old man versus volatile teenager, the duo is so endearing and well formed (flaws and all) that you wish the journey was even longer such is their loveable nature. Neill has never been better as arduous grump Hector, bringing his vast experience to the table that beautifully balances the grouchy with the humble, while Julian Dennison is truly sensational as Ricky. Confident and mature beyond his years, Dennison has a big, bright future.
While there are a few shortcomings, nothing can derail such a majestic, magical experience from being one of the great enjoyments of the year. Funny, moving, heartfelt and superbly performed, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a joy and reaffirms his place as one of a unique voice in film right now. Onto Asgard…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Scott J. Davis is a Senior Staff Writer and Roving Reporter for Flickering Myth – Follow him on Twitter