"When they ask who did this, tell them it was the Wilderpeople."
Despite the fact that his filmography only consisted of two movies prior to the release of his latest one, writer and director Taika Waititi has already homed and established his own offbeat comedic sensibilities. 'Boy' ‘and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ were both inventive, excellently written and superbly directed movies that each had their own little affectionate and heartfelt moments to boot. ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is no different.
Ricky Baker (Dennison), a defiant young city kid who is preoccupied with gangster lifestyle, is sent by child welfare services to live in the country with foster parents, Aunt Bella and cantankerous Uncle Hec (Neill). When Ricky and Hec end up getting lost in the woods together they spark a nationwide manhunt to find them.
It’s amazing how on paper ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ can appear so by the numbers and generic (a troubled teen bonding with a reluctant father figure due to a bond they forge during a journey through the wilderness that involves camping). But through his execution of this story Taika Waititi manages to craft yet another endearing, immensely watchable and wonderfully eccentric story that balances its comedy and its sentimentality almost pitch perfectly.
Waititi accomplishes this through a number of techniques that mark him out as a gifted new filmmaker (‘Thor: Ragnarok’ should be something special if the director’s previous films are anything to go by). He establishes grounded and sympathetic characters who are not judged or reduced to cheap caricatures, instead the movie fleshes them out as unique individuals and then finds joy through that individuality. Whether it be a scene in which Ricky dances to an imaginary set of headphones spouting music that only exists in his head or his enthusiasm for summarising his life experiences in the form of a Haiku, they are always able to evoke affection and humour.
It is also a good thing that the two central characters are as interesting as they are because it only allows the actors portraying them to further what are already excellent performances. Despite his relative lack of acting experience Julian Dennison is magnetic as Ricky, never reducing the character to a simple blundering idiot, instead conveying a great mix of cynicism that one would expect from a child passed from carer to carer all his life, but also displaying the appropriate amount of fun and innocence so that we never forget he’s still an adventurous kid at heart. Sam Neil on the other hand is equally brilliant, it becomes a joy to watch his tough exterior slowly melt away, not to a point where the character feels inconsistent, but enough to understand his development and progression due to spending more time with his companion. It gets even better when it becomes apparent that the two share such fantastic chemistry and we get to revel in it almost for the movie’s entire runtime.
The supporting cast are just as entertaining. Though the side characters aren’t quite as well developed their individualism is what makes them so memorable and hilarious. Rachel House plays the worlds most committed and overly enthusiastic social worker, whose obsession in finding Ricky and upholding her “No child left behind policy” is more befitting of someone who should be standing next to Liam Neeson in the next ‘Taken’ movie. Rhys Darby is another standout as Psycho Sam but sadly, to digress any more of what makes him brilliant would deprive you of experiencing those hysterical surprises for yourself. Even Waititi has a wonderfully funny cameo that, despite being a small role, actually serves as proof that he could be just as talented a comedic actor as he is a comedic writer and director.
The New Zealand filmmaker has an impeccable understanding of both the funny and heartfelt sides of life. Waititi uses his skills behind the camera to convey each emotion with brilliant timing and rhythm. You get a sense that not only is he acutely aware of how best to evoke each conflicting emotion and rarely does he put a foot wrong. The tone, structure and pace he adopts is consistently perfect to match the themes he is dealing with, displaying a great sense of humanity and compassion to match. His framing is able to highlight the nuance of every joke and speak volumes about how a character feels, what drives them and how they choose to deal with it. Waititi can balance these conflicting tones and atmospheres so brilliantly and can turn from one to another on such a whim that he almost makes it look easy.
A pretty majestical movie (you’ll understand once you’ve seen it).