Taika Waititi, the man who brought us What We Do in the Shadows, debuted a new comedy at Sundance. And while it does not have the surprising charm of his vampire mock-doc, the gentle Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an equally well-made and infectiously entertaining adventure.
The lumpy title is fortunately the most awkward thing about this gentle and effortlessly deadpan comedy. New Zealand author Barry Crump provides the source material, the story of a troubled boy whose new foster parents change his life in unexpected ways. Actually, that makes Wilderpeople sound like a Lifetime movie, so maybe it’ll help to mention that a couple of those “unexpected ways” include a chase with the cops and repeated run-ins with a group of dim-witted hunters.
Julian Dennison stars as Ricky, an overweight kid who hides his vulnerabilities under flashy street style and a thick layer of sarcasm. Said to be “a very bad egg” by his scowling caseworker (played to perfection by Rachel House, channeling the vibe of Disney’s 1970s villains), Ricky really just needs some attention. Foster mom Bella (a warmly excellent Rima Te Wiata) is ready to provide, even if her older husband Hec isn’t so willing.
Trouble is, fate flicks a finger at the loving Bella just as Ricky is beginning to settle in and and soften up. That leaves the kid to come to terms with dour old Uncle Hec, played by Sam Neill. Where Bella was all-in on Ricky from the beginning, the hard-luck Hec has his own troubled history to overcome before he’s willing to accept a closed-off city kid who is wholly out of his element.
This isn’t a domestic comedy, however. While Ricky isn’t all that bad an egg, he does fail to truly think through his impulses, and one small fire later he’s lit out in the woods on his own.
Waititi has a loose but comfortable grip on the material as Ricky runs into the woods, leading Hec in pursuit. The two are eventually stranded out in the bush for a spell, allowing a little criminal mystique to build up around their disappearance—and for Hec and Ricky to work through the first awkward bonding stages. Through a series of misunderstandings, Ricky’s caseworker believes Ricky to be the victim of a kidnapping, and she and the authorities are out in force looking for the kid, who has no interest in being taken back to the state foster system.
Even as the backwoods manhunt becomes more absurd, Wilderpeople feels affable and loose—like a good hike, but never lazy. Sam Neill brings all his gruff charm to bear in his role, and with a firm but fair authoritative air, he helps Hec make a solid case for being taken seriously as Ricky’s new guardian.
But Waititi structures Wilderpeople as an exchange of ideas between Hec and Ricky—in classic form, the two have a lot to learn from one another—and to that end, the film in fact belongs to Dennison. The young actor can put a personal spin on sarcasm bombs, and he’s equally natural whether Ricky is affecting a dumb swagger or comforting himself through childish lies. (At one point Bella asks hip-hop obsessed Ricky who Tupac is, and the kid doesn’t even blink before going all soulful to say “he’s, like, my best friend.” That might be moment where I fell for the movie.)
Wilderpeople is a family-friendly story, familiar without being pandering, and one which approximates the tone and content of multiplex comedies in the days before PG-13. It feels like a bit of a throwback, a sensation which is heightened by Waititi’s playful references to a whole host of other films.
Within the framework of Hec and Ricky’s increasingly more frantic attempt to live on their own, Waititi pays homage to, among others, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, New Zealand classics Smash Palace and Sleeping Dogs (which also starred Neill) and, in the most grandiose section, Thelma & Louise. There are probably more nods that we missed; it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other big New Zealand films in the mix.
Those film references also help Waititi amp up the action while staying firmly outside the bounds of his own fictional bubble. Because Ricky constantly fantasizes about bringing violence to bear on pursuing forces, the more grandiose ways in which Waititi envisions their encounters is essentially the boy’s own childish imagination writ large.
There’s no point where Hunt for the Wilderpeople does anything that you’ve never seen before, but it would be crazy to hold that against a film made with such an effortlessly cultivated tone and an accommodating ear for comedy. Taika Waititi expertly captures the tone of early ’80s comedies without regurgitating their content, even as he provides the structure for great performances from Sam Neill and Julian Dennison.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos