New Zealand’s hills are no longer just for the hobbits. Step aside Bilbo, the mountain sides are now also populated by the eccentric and curious cast of Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, screened at this year’s Sundance, and already the highest grossing New Zealand film of all time. Raking in a very impressive NZ$12 million and showered with international and critical acclaim, its commercial success speaks for itself, although slapdash editing and clichéd jokes sometimes undercut its flare for originality and big hearted outlook.
The operatic opening score hardly keeps the dramatic dynamism at the heat of this film hidden. An orphan failed by the foster care system, Ricky (Julian Dennison), is dropped off on the backwoods doorstep of oddball couple Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill) by blasé social worker Paula (Rachel House) 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 a range of unpredictable, whirlwind adventures.
It feels appropriate that a happy-go-lucky frolic doesn’t sweat the technicalities, overlooking continuity and realism in favour of hurtling unhesitatingly from one madcap caper to the next.
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: the pacing often struggles as some scenes are snapped too short while others drag on a little too long, but in part, this brash, unpolished quality which gives the film undeniable charm. It feels appropriate that a happy-go-lucky frolic 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 (in particular reminiscent of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’), frameworked around symmetry and a faithful follower of the rule of thirds, but never soullessly regimented or too pretty for its gritty storyline. It also hinges on 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 double act of Paula and an accompanying police offer Andy (Oscar Kightley) misses the mark on occasion, and the easy and tired fat jokes in the trailer was also worrying, but this teaser is not a fair advertisement for the film’s quirk. 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.
As with all of the best comedy-dramas, the characters are not only receptacles for spouting witty one-liners but are also well-formed and generally loveable in their own right. The grizzled Hector is much more than his first cantankerous impression, and Sam Neill swings perfectly between Hector’s stoic front and his hidden heart. A stand-out performance is also given by the young star of the film, Julian Dennison, who pairs a natural comic knack with great maturity in the film’s darker moments. Characters never slot easily into sloppy stereotypes and their actors don’t play to stock reactions and expressions. The exploration of masculinity is tenderly done, and Ricky’s concern for his street-cred is paired with an unashamed love for composing haikus to sort through his feelings, which is a very original and endearing mix. Refreshingly, this is no rehashed 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 in many ways it is the older Hector who is forced to do much more soul searching than the younger Ricky ever does.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople doesn’t try to force-feed big lessons, and it’s not a morality play.
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. It doesn’t beg to be picked apart or function as a survivalist handbook, but it is delightfully bashful and drips with indie charm. In honour of Ricky’s partiality to haikus:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Is a strange and reckless romp
Check it out for fun.