Taika Waititi has had his hand in many unique projects, but it was his hysterical vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” that made me a fan. The film’s wacky mix of absurd and subtle humor was refreshing especially within its formulaic and gimmick-ridden genre.
His follow up is the equally hysterical and equally refreshing “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. Much like his previous film, Waititi writes, co-produces, and directs this odd couple adventure comedy that so beautifully walks the line between silly absurdity and thoughtful, tender humor. Contrary to many modern comedy norms, “Wilderpeople” delicately explores several deeper themes underneath its unashamedly goofy exterior. Most importantly it does it all very well.
The film tells the story of two very different but equally isolated people. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled 13 year-old who has been shipped from home to home by child welfare services. After several incidents in the city Ricky is given one more chance at a home life. He is sent to the countryside and new foster parents the quirky but loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the burly, gruff Hec (Sam Neill).
Through circumstances that I’ll let you discover for yourself Ricky runs away into the dense bush but is eventually found by Hec. Child Services, led by the dogged, overzealous Agent Paula (Rachel House), absurdly determine that Hec kidnapped Ricky and therefore set out on a manhunt to find the two. This feeds the film’s main focus – the peculiar relationship between a young boy and an elderly man both with huge needs in their lives.
To say Waititi has fun with the whole “opposites attract” idea is an understatement. The clashing of these two drastically different personalities allow for some truly hilarious moments. Ricky’s youthful exuberance against Hec’s grumpy desire to be left alone. Ricky’s street gangster ambitions against Hec’s bushland survivalist skills. Yet they come together through one lone emotional similarity and we get to enjoy the zaniness this unlikely pairing brings.
Much should be said about the performances which are very much essential pieces. This is young Dennison’s third project and he is such a treat delivering a fabulous multi-layered character. We see it in his spontaneous pop culture references, his penchant for writing haiku, and his random child psychology quotes. Dennison exudes a certain sweetness and naïveté that melds so well with the tone Waitiki is going for.
Sam Neill is equally vital. He could have easily been your run-of-the-mill surly old-timer, but his performance doesn’t allow for that. He, along with Waititi’s script, blow apart any surface level perceptions we may have of his character. Hec may appear familiar, but Neill takes him in several unexpected directions. In fact the same could be said for much of Waititi’s film. It’s constantly defying expectations.
Waititi’s star is clearly shining brighter and his next film should be a challenge (Marvel’s third Thor film). But “Wilderpeople” is him making movies in his comfort zone. It is a film so clearly and perfectly attuned to his humor and sensibilities. This fun little odyssey pulls from so many directions but always maintains its balance. It’s genuinely tender and sweet but never overly sentimental. The humor ranges from subtle deadpan to big broad comedy but it always works together. All of this testifies to Waititi’s brilliance as a filmmaker and storyteller. The guy knows how to make a movie, and you won’t find a 2016 comedy much funnier than this one.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS