What is it about the New Zealanders? There is a consistent effortlessness in the cinematic output of this small nation that I can’t help but admire. While Australian filmmakers often find themselves (either deliberately or unconsciously) producing works that strive for international acceptance, New Zealanders seem entirely indifferent to such things. And so it is with Taika Waititi’s unpretentious Hunt for the Wilderpeople, by far the funniest film I’ve come across in 2016 thus far.
Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a troubled young boy who has found himself passed from family to family, dealing with the demoralising realities of child welfare. Ricky’s fortunes take a turn for the better when he is taken into the rural home of the warm and loving Bella, played by Rima Te Wiata. While Ricky begins to feel at home with Bella, he is substantially less comfortable with her husband Hec, portrayed as a grumpy misanthrope by Sam Neill.
Soon enough, a series of unfortunate and rather brutal events sees Ricky and Hec on the run from the law, using the local forest to evade capture. Leading the charge against the two outlaws is Paula (Rachel House), a welfare officer with an inexplicable but always hilarious vendetta against young Ricky. Things escalate, as they do, culminating in an exciting third act that looks far more expensive than it possibly could be.
Along the way, Hec and Ricky grow closer as they deal with an endless onslaught of redneck hunters, police helicopters, and what appears to be a battalion of tanks. As media coverage turns them into local celebrities, Ricky and Hec are aided by various people along the way, most notably a deeply disturbed conspiracy theorist named Psycho Sam (played by Rhys Darby of Flight of the Conchords fame). But the film is always at its best in the quieter moments, when these two gentleman are left to discuss their lives and worldviews. Ricky’s hobby – writing foul mouthed and amateurish haikus – proves to be remarkably fertile soil for reflecting on life’s hidden joys.
The story is an adaptation of Barry Crump’s much-loved 1986 novel, Wild Pork and Watercress. From what I understand, Crump was well known for being a macho outdoorsman who wrote in a manner that captured the spirit of his lifestyle. Waititi’s approach is a little more irreverent than the source material, taking a deliberately disjointed and stylised approach. But the narrative itself is still largely conventional.
What is less conventional however, is the near perfect mix of poignant character development, light-hearted comedy, and confronting humanity that lies at the film’s core. Ricky and Hec have suffered greatly before we’ve ever met them, and before the end of the film they will both be dealt fresh blows. But they have also found each other and shared a great adventure. An adventure, which it is clear, they will remember nostalgically for the remainder of their lives. The misleading simplicity of Hunt for the Wilderpeople initially conceals the reality; that this is a film about the transience of things, both good and bad… what the Japanese call mono no aware.
The cast here are all on top form under the guidance of director, Waititi. Rima Te Wiata portrays Bella with almost heartbreaking warmth and innocence. Sam Neill gives Hec an always believable intensity, never allowing the character to dissolve into sentimentality. Rachel House is pure comic gold as the out-of-control welfare officer. And the young Julian Dennison is an incredible find as Ricky, giving an exceptionally warm performance with near-perfect comic timing.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve not seen Taika Waititi’s previous two features, Boy (2010) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014). It’s a mistake I’ll quickly rectify. Interestingly, Waititi is now slotted to direct the third film in the Thor franchise, Thor: Ragnorak. Having just seen such a cosy, loveable and human film, I’m not sure how I feel about that. But right now, I can’t imagine him doing any wrong…