Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows on the heels of New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s excellent 2014 horror-comedy What We Do In The Shadows. Waititi’s stylish, almost whimsical approach brings us a funny and uplifting movie, which has much in common with his warm and idiosyncratic second feature, Boy.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a troubled inner-city kid who has been moved around through various foster homes his whole life. As something of a last resort, Child Services caseworker Paula (Rachel House) brings Ricky to stay in the countryside with kind-hearted Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her curmudgeonly partner, Hec (Sam Neill). As Ricky begins to soften, and learn what it is to have family, tragedy strikes. Circumstance forces Ricky and Hec to flee into the bush. The two become an outlaw odd couple of sorts, an on-the-run duo who go on to capture the public’s imagination. As Child Services and the Police pursue them across the country, Ricky and Hec slowly learn to trust and respect each other.
Although at its essence the plot is one of a begrudging friendship, it is the journey, rather than the destination that will propel Wilderpeople into your heart. It defines itself with a good-natured sense of humour and a rich vein of pathos; the laughs are broad and frequent, but we do find ourselves in some dark territory on occasion. Somehow, this darker element ought not to work, but Waititi balances the general tone with a charming silliness and a poignancy to the darker moments.
Julian Dennison’s Ricky is the heart of the picture, and he’s terrific. Ricky is cocky and overconfident, but never malicious. He’s more of a scamp and a tearaway than a thug, and it is this approach that allows us to sympathise with him. Sam Neill also excels as Uncle Hec, walking the thin line between irritation at his young charge and a burgeoning paternal affection. Rachel House and Oscar Kightly provide big laughs as the somewhat hapless pursuing authorities, and regular Waititi-player Rhys Darby delivers a ridiculous cameo. Apart from the key players, the stunning New Zealand landscape is as much of a character, dazzling the eyeballs as Ricky and Hec take to the countryside.
Waititi is an intriguing director, with a style that brings to mind Wes Anderson with less of a retro fetish. Surprisingly, he is soon helming Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel, which on current evidence suggests will be a very interesting prospect.
On a couple of occasions the tone of Wilderpeople gets a little awkward – most notably in a church scene – and one or two of the more ridiculous elements threaten to get out of control, but ultimately Wilderpeople’s honest, cockle-warming centre builds up such goodwill it could convert even the basest cynic. Waititi has crafted a beguiling, redemptive comedy that is impossible to dislike. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an absolute delight of a movie.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10