After being delivered by child welfare services to a remote farm in the New Zealand countryside, troublesome fat kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) finds himself the object of a national manhunt when he and his grumpy foster father, ‘Uncle Hec’ (Sam Neill), accidentally go missing in the bush.
Taika Waititi has had a stranger career trajectory than most. That he’s the man who’s being trusted to make Thor: Ragnarok by Marvel Studios implies a certain kind of director, but his previous film — 2014’s horror-mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows — suggests someone entirely different. And if you were surprised to see Marvel hand him such a high-profile gig, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is hardly going to make you feel differently.
But that’s by no means a bad thing. Coming on like a low-budget, live-action Up directed by a Wes Anderson who doesn’t mind getting muddy, this adaptation of Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork And Watercress is the ideal showcase for Waititi’s exuberant sense of humour and flair for inventive absurdity. Neill is the nominal star, playing grieving ex-convict Hec Faulkner, though it’s 13-year-old Dennison who gets all the best lines as the juvenile delinquent on a bizarre outback adventure. At one point, the pair have to cower beneath an outcrop as their pursuers stalk overhead. Ricky frantically gestures at his foster dad-turned-wilderness survival mentor, but Hec can’t work out what vital information he’s trying to convey. The danger passes; Hec wants to know what the problem was. “I was trying to tell you it was like The Lord Of The Rings!” exclaims Ricky.
Divided into ten titled chapters, which feature the world’s worst eulogy (courtesy of a fantastic Waititi cameo), seemingly gigantic wild boar and a climactic car chase that references Thelma & Louise, Wilderpeople presents a comically heightened world. This may nudge a few of its inhabitants into caricature territory, but it’s mitigated by a strong sense of warmth, sweetness and humanity pervading the entire film.
It will make you honk like a goose on nitrous oxide.
Once again, Dennison is the hero here. As Ricky, he can be obtuse, offensive and obsessed with being “gangster”. But moments later he’ll remind us he’s an abandoned child in need of emotional security — such as when he develops a dependence on hot water bottles or envisions a girl he meets in a faux-erotic ’80s Flake ad.
And with Neill he forms a fractious double act that manages to develop a convincing emotional connection between spiky whippersnapper and cantankerous old-timer without miring itself in ‘heartwarming’ cliché. There’s a refreshing lack of sentimentality to Wilderpeople and Waititi allows the drama to hit hard where it needs to, so it roots itself far deeper than the whimsical trimmings might suggest. Some scenes will get you swearing there’s just something in your eye; others will make you honk like a goose on nitrous oxide. You’ll be left with a glow that’ll ensure Wilderpeople a place on your best-of-year list.
Deftly balancing humanity with comedy? Creating nuanced, loveable characters within a style-heightened world? Actually, perhaps Waititi’s Marvel gig isn’t so surprising, after all.
A bit Up, a bit Moonrise Kingdom, a bit Midnight Run, even… Taika Waititi’s latest is an oddball treat of a mismatched-buddy pursuit move.