Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016.
Directed by Taika Waititi.
Starring Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Knightley 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.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople occupies a strange place, that purgatory between a children’s fantasy and something more akin to a study of loss aimed at the slightly older. Yet Taika Waititi, director of the delightfully silly What We Do In The Shadows, never pigeonholes the film, moving with ease between broad comedy and something with genuine warmth, all be it warmth buried beneath mounds of mud.
Julian Dennison – an adept comic performer stars as Ricky, a problem child who finds himself on a remote farm under the care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). Social worker Paula (Rachel House) declares him “a bad egg,” spouting off his crimes, “disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff…” Following Bella’s sudden departure, Ricky and Hec find themselves on the run from family services who believe Hec has kidnapped Ricky.
Although divided into ten titled chapters, the film never feels episodic. In fact, the chapters at time feel forced, ultimately disrupting the flow. Even if the flow is being distracted, the chapters are still rollicking good fun.
It’s at once reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s quirk-fest Moonrise Kingdom while seemingly echoing Thelma & Louise and at times, rather bizarrely, the tough, knock about feel of Kes. But through all this, it’s clearly a Waititi film, something strange, something touching (look out for Waititi early on who appears, quite brilliantly, delivering a hysterically misjudged eulogy).
At its core, it’s a somewhat trite road-movie, and pacing issues results in a slight dip late on. Yet it’s never boring, far from it in fact. Julian Dennison plays Ricky with oddball spunk, declaring himself a gangster to Sam Neill (at his most “lumbersexual”). The two of them bounce off one-another like a pair with far, far more experience. A quick note on Rachel House who plays a joyously useless social worker. She declares the dangers of molestation while also comparing herself to the Terminator and Ricky to Sarah Conner “but before she could do chin ups.”
It isn’t that it lacks sentimentality, it’s in fact overflowing with it. But Waititi intelligently avoids grand clichés that may have moved it towards something far more cloying. Following Bella’s departure, there’s genuine sadness-one such moment shows Neill breaking down-yet they never feel hackneyed. Waititi cleverly pairs these moments that jerk the tear ducts with moments that force cackling.
Hunt For the Wilderpeople is something to be celebrated. A film brimming with heart, irreverence and a welcome comic performance by Sam Neill. Yet it’s Julian Dennison, the precocious, obnoxious, star in the marking who stands out. There’s always the chance it will be a hard sell, a strange study of grief aimed at children. Yet if you give it the chance, and I implore you to, it most likely will make you guffaw and cry in equal measure. A total, delectable treat.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★