In Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Ricky Baker — an overweight, sullen city-kid clad in garish “skuxx” (New Zealand slang for “more gangster than gangster”, according to my desperate googling) street-wear — is driven out deep into the New Zealand bush to the last foster home that’ll take him. If it doesn’t work out here, the next stop is juvenile prison for a kid who is, in his granite-faced case-worker’s words, “a bit of a handful, a real bad egg.” After a rocky start, Ricky seems to be settling in with his oddball foster parents — Auntie Bella, a pig-hunting extrovert with a heart of gold, and her reclusive bushman husband Hector (“Hec”) — when a series of events pitch Hec and Ricky into a surreal quest through the bush, on the run from the law, encountering a series of bizarre characters and predicaments along the way.
As a quirky rites-of-passage dark comedy obsessed with costume, kitschy details, and caricature, Wilderpeople has a stylistic and thematic kinship with O Brother Where Art Thou-mode Coen Brothers and the movies of Wes Anderson. But where Anderson’s protagonists are flawed idealists, driven by a singular madness that elevates them into larger-than-life figures, Waititi’s are scowling pragmatists, fed-up-but-not-giving-up, walking embodiments of the battle between selfishness, empathy, and sheer confusion that rages in all of us. This is a buddy story that manages to be deeply irreverent, yet somehow one of the most touching things I’ve seen in ages.
The central relationship between Ricky and Hec — the beating heart of the movie’s charm — recalls the bickering camaraderie of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the Edgar Wright movies. Hardly a kind word or glance of mutual admiration passes between the youth and the old man as their wretched adventures unfold. A few tender scenes aside (such as when they share haiku with one another as a desperate attempt at therapy), they prefer mockery and sarcasm to affection — a normal dynamic between young men, perhaps, and particularly of the antipodean and British variety (see Wright’s films), but completely unexpected between an old man and a pre-teen. But it completely works: Hec and Ricky’s chemistry is palpable and, as the movie progresses, the relationship is even more convincing for its unconventional genesis.
The comparison with Edgar Wright doesn’t stop there: Waititi’s film makes similar use of quickdraw editing tricks associated with Wright — sudden shifts in tone, surreal musical interludes, close-ups with popcorn cuts and rapid zooms — these techniques all play a major role in the timing of the humour and also help to propel the narrative along with the pacing of a good comic strip. The pace risks getting relentless, but it’s tempered with more pensive shots of the bush, and judicious slices of soaring helicopter footage of the sumptuous New Zealand countryside. This is a very good-looking, well-edited movie.
Hec is played by Sam Neill, reprising the grumpy-uncle-who-overcomes-his-dislike-of-kids role from Jurassic Park, but with infinitely more beard. Neill is physically unrecognizable as a hirsute bushman, but the quality of his acting is as apparent as ever. Although much of his role is dedicated to portraying the relentlessly impenetrable grump of a depressed down-and-out who’d quite like to just be left alone, Neill peppers the performance with moments of bewilderment, sadness and rage that both burst off the screen and make the vital emotional connections with Ricky’s own anger and dejection, emerging from the boy’s abandonment as a baby and the awful experiences he’s had bouncing around in foster care.
And Julian Dennison’s turn as Ricky is nothing short of exceptional. It’s a deceptively demanding role, requiring a blend of deadpan insolence with vulnerability that would put a seasoned actor to the test, and this is only the thirteen-year-old Dennison’s third role. A real talent, for sure.
The acting and casting are spot-on throughout. Rima Te Wiata as unhinged matriarch Bella and Rachel House as the unethical, waspish case worker, Paula, are both perfect. Look out for a hilarious turn by Rhys Darby (Murray from Flight of the Conchords) as a conspiracy-theorist hermit.
I can’t imagine anyone not falling for this film. The rapid-fire script bristles with one-liners that manage to be absurd, howlingly funny, and bittersweet in equal measure. It’s got charm in buckets, gorgeous scenery, and a stellar, eclectic soundtrack (scored by NZ band Moniker; also featuring Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen.) If I had to pick fault, I might ask more of the ending, which feels a little off-the-shelf and safe after the riotous climax that preceded it. Also, a couple of the episodic encounters Hec and Ricky stumble into seem a bit sketchy and incomplete, perhaps. But that’s nitpicking. All in all, this is the most lovable, off-beat comedy I’ve seen in years. Highly recommended.
Dan’s rating: (9 / 10)
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Taika Waititi (screenplay), Barry Crump (based on the book by)
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House
Release Date: 22 January 2016
Runtime: 1h 41m
MPAA Rating: PG-13