Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House
Released on 16th September 2016
Wildebeest roam what New Zealanders would call the bush, living off the land: as well as acquiring a different spelling, wilderpeople do the same thing. And that’s how teenager Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) sees the world. As we discover at the end of Hunt For The Wilderpeople, he’s not alone, because the credits recognise the film’s wildercrew. And the wilderdogs. But, hey, this is the world of Taika Waititi and it goes with the territory.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, he – along with buddy Jemaine Clement – was behind the glorious vampire spoof What We Do In The Shadows (2014), which has made him something of a darling in indie cinema circles. How he will fare in Hollywood directing a super-hero movie – Thor:Ragnarok, due for release next year – remains to be seen. For now, he’s on familiar and gleefully irreverent territory.
Young Ricky has been passed from foster home to foster home and his latest one belongs to Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Set on the edge of the bush, it’s deeply dull for the wannabe gangster from the city, so he runs away. But the combination of his failed attempts and Bella’s down-to-earth kindness encourage him to stick around – until she dies suddenly. Child Services want to place him with another family, but he’s not having any of it and takes off into the bush. Hector, determined that the boy will be taken off his hands, tracks him down, but the two find themselves living off the land for months, sparking a full scale man hunt.
Waititi has shifted from the overt parody of his previous film to something more characteristic of his native New Zealand, a humour and tone that’s dry, slightly world weary and not averse to giving modern life a poke in the eye. Much of the bone dry humour comes from the characters themselves – grumpy Hector, rebellious Ricky, child-hating Paula (Rachel House) from Child Services – instead of parodies. Although he simply can’t resist a Thelma And Louise send-up towards the end. There’s affection in there as well, although it isn’t all chuckles along the way. When Bella dies, all you can hear is Hector’s howls of anguish and it’s unbearably sad.
Modern life gets plenty of digs in the ribs. The craze for selfies, which has now reached the New Zealand bush, is a favourite target, especially as the word now seems to be synonymous with “photograph”. There’s Ricky’s ambitions to be a gangster and drug dealer, living up to his reputation as a “bad egg”. There’s also references that are specific to New Zealand, so audiences from elsewhere may not appreciate them fully. Paula from Child Services – “no child left behind” is her frequent and deeply insincere mantra – is like a latter day Nurse Ratchet. Apparently, child protection in the country doesn’t enjoy the best of reputations so her cursory approval of the foster home and her childish arguments with Ricky, for audiences in the country where it was made, at least, reinforce that reputation. For us, she’s just a monster – and somebody who’s clearly in the wrong job.
While Waititi’s style is very much his own, the idea of a young, overweight boy going on an adventure with a curmudgeonly old man has just a whiff of Up (2009) about it, although it owes more in tone to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012). But it stands resolutely and happily on its own, a mis-matched buddy movie with an offbeat sense of humour and a feel good story refreshingly untainted by a single grain of sugar. And the cast are all perfectly in tune, especially Julian Dennison as Ricky with a hostile stare than can melt into a smile when he’s given the encouragement he cries out for – underneath his gaudy clothes, gangster aspirations and decidedly average haiku, which he’s been taught as a way of expressing his emotions. There’s even a cameo from Waititi himself, as the eccentric minister at Bella’s funeral. Clad in white and Cadbury’s purple vestments, he’s seriously bad at his job. Ricky would have said he sucked.
But the film most certainly doesn’t. The word spread like wildfire about this one after its first screening at Edinburgh this year – it ended up winning the Audience Award – and it’s one long chuckle, occasionally punctuated by something a bit louder. It’s not, to use another of Ricky’s words, “majestical”, but it’s spiky, smart, funny and touching and most definitely has its heart in the right place. A very dry place. Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a real find.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is released in cinemas on Friday, 16 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 15 September.