Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Dir: Taika Waititi
Add one measure of Pixar’s Up and a few teaspoons of Thelma and Louise and you are on your way to understanding the recipe for New Zealand writer/director’s Taika Waititi’s latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. If that’s baffling, think on-the-run buddy movie with odd couple protagonists. The results? A lot of laughs!
Raised on hip-hop and foster care, defiant city kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) gets a fresh start in the New Zealand countryside with his new foster family: the loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), and dog Tupac. When a tragedy strikes that threatens to move Ricky to yet another home, both he and Hec go on the run in the NZ bush. As a national manhunt begins, the newly branded outlaws must make a difficult choice: go out in a blaze of glory or overcome their differences and survive as a family.
As with previous successes such as 2010’s Boy, Waititi shows a dab hand at balancing the deft needs of comedy with heartfelt moments that elevate this film and turn itself into something else altogether. A supporting cast that features wonderful cameo turns from a number of performers including Flight of the Conchords star Rhys Darby contributes significantly. Though occasionally running the risk of veering into cartoonish characterisation, the emotional sense of what makes a family makes the larger impact, always honest though never sentimental.
But it is the chemistry between the veteran Sam Neill and young newcomer Julian Dennison that makes this film. Behind a thick beard, Neill is terrific as the stoic Hec, the kind of guy you’d expect to hear roaring at those kids to get off his lawn. His quiet and isolated life is at first threatened and then enlivened by the arrival of Ricky, whose command of the haiku form is both engaging and humourous.
At its heart is a nuanced understanding of what childhood is all about. The fact that this conception is situated in the heart of a relationship with a grandfather figure draws the viewer in. The threat posed by the fight or flight response that Hec and Ricky face heightens the narrative without belittling the characters. Quirky touches of comedy manage to defuse an occasional lapse in the pacing of the story but in the end, the characters are so engaging I would have been happy to spend more time with Hec and Ricky. Sequel anyone?