New Zealand’s hills are no longer just for the hobbits: they are now also populated by the eccentric and curious cast of Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, screened at this year’s Sundance. Operatic music blasts over spectacular aerial shots of rolling green hills as the film opens, and this is the first big clue of the dynamism at its heart. An orphan failed by the foster care system, Ricky is dropped off on the backwoods doorstep of oddball couple Bella and Hector by blasé social worker Paula who can’t wash her hands of him soon enough. Calamity soon strikes, and when Ricky is threatened with a return to the foster system, Ricky and Hector take to the woods, suddenly part of a manhunt and running headfirst into whirlwind adventures.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople grapples with its plot in a strangely earnest way for a film which is so brazenly absurdist. Sometimes it feels a tad underdeveloped, as if this wasn’t quite the final cut: some scenes are snapped too short while others dragged out, but it is in part this brash, unpolished quality which gives the film undeniable charm. It actually feels appropriate that a film which has so much fun doesn’t sweat the technicalities, overlooking continuity and realism in favour of hurtling unhesitatingly from one madcap caper to the next.
Snatched up by Marvel to helm the latest Thor film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople shows why the spotlight is on Taika Waititi. His vision is intrepid and innovative, sparking off past filmmakers rather than stealing. It is beautifully Anderson-esque, frameworked around symmetry and the rule of thirds, but never soullessly regimented or too pretty for its gritty storyline. It also has that same deadpan humour but sometimes tries too hard to squeeze out laughs; some jokes try too much while others don’t quite try enough. The amount of tired fat jokes in the trailer was also worrying, but it seems a lot worse than it is in actuality. In soundbite form, what isn’t clear is that most of these jokes fall onto silence, and Ricky’s total ambivalence guides audience reaction: to laugh at the teller, not the subject. Cinema doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it can kindle culture and sets up the socially acceptable, so more thought out humour is incredibly welcome, as are jokes that punch up rather than down.
The characters are well-formed and loveable, and there is so much more depth to the grizzled Hector than the first cantankerous impression. Ricky’s need to maintain his street-cred but also unashamedly join in singing his daft plinkity-plonkity birthday song by Bella, and compose haikus to sort through his feelings, is a very charming mix. This is not a traditional tale of understanding the failings of a role model: Ricky gravitates to Hector, but he has no delusions and never any hang-ups from hero worshipping. Both bat out tough questions on a level playing field, and ultimately it is Hector who is forced to do much more soul searching than Ricky ever does.
The ending is unexpected, but totally fitting in its furor when crunch time comes. Hunt for the Wilderpeople doesn’t try to force-feed big lessons, and it’s not a morality play. In honour of Ricky’s partiality to haikus:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Is a strange and reckless romp
Check it out for fun.