The most successful domestic New Zealand film of all time, this is likely going to become a significant cultural touchstone going forward for Australia’s picturesque neighbour. And deservedly so. Not only does the adventures of Ricky Baker deserve to live on forever, this is the funniest, charming and most touching film I have seen in a long time.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) is a New Zealand adventure/comedy written and directed by up-and-coming film-maker Taika Waititi (What we Do in the Shadows, Boy and soon Thor: Ragnarok). It stars Julian Dennison as rebellious orphan Ricky Baker who is placed in an isolated foster home with the accommodating Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and grumpy Hector (Sam Neill). But after tragedy strikes and Ricky runs away with the begrudging Hector, a national manhunt is ordered to bring the duo back.
The film plays out like a kooky roadtrip with a mismatched pair of souls – the wannabe skux gangsta’ Ricky and the grumpy and down-to-earth Hector. Doggedly chased by an encroaching police force, as well as vengeful hunters and an odd animal or two, the film constantly surprises with how unpredictable it is. While overall not a ground-breaking roadtrip narrative, every time a predictable story beat seems to appear, the movie takes a sharp left and veers in the complete opposite direction. It makes for a viewing experience that feels fresh and exciting amidst all the typical story clichés and tropes dotting Hollywood today.
Not only is the narrative comfortably engaging, this movie is imbued with an infectious sense of humour and impressive dramatic energy. The balance between comedy and drama is something Waititi has clearly perfected since Boy, and both hit so well that the film is imbued with a light-hearted sense of energy that can’t help but snare even the most black-hearted viewer. Not only that, but this movie is funny and quotable to the nth degree, kiwi accent and all. Like Aussie classic The Castle, the movie has stumbled on to a sense of both raw infectious energy and classic cultural power, and is likely to be held up as a kiwi culture point (like The Castle) for years to come.
Much of the joy of Wilderpeople is thanks to the writing, but plenty of the awe should also be directed towards the two leads. Julian Dennison is a relative newcomer as Ricky, but has real talent – capturing the sweet and rebel sides of Baker equally while perfectly selling his growing affinity for Hector. Sam Neill, with plenty of experience compared to Dennison, knows not to try and outshine the kid, but still manages to create quite the impression. While Ricky Baker may be the spirit of the film, Hector is the emotion and Neill sells several key moments perfectly in order to create the bitter to go with Dennison’s sweet.
In regards to the directing, Waititi is no stranger to shooting innovatively (after the brilliant What we do in the Shadows and excellent Boy), and Wilderpeople keeps up his streak, maintaining eccentricities and visual flourishes that elevate the energy of the film to another level. Wilderpeople however does possess a scale and budget Waititi hasn’t dealt with yet, and a few key moments of CGI and scope do tend to resort to the typical bewilderingly fast-cuts of Hollywood films in an uncharacteristic expression of just being ‘standard’. Which is weird for such a brilliantly original and kooky director (and I hope it doesn’t signal things to come for Thor: Ragnarok).
But aside from those few brief missteps, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the most perfect melding of grassroots culture, cinematic energy and touching drama I have seen in a long time. Hands down the best film of 2016 so far, and a movie that makes me damn proud to be half-kiwi.
General Audiences: Must-see
Film Buffs: Must-see
Cultists: Highly Recommended
Winner of the 2016 Batsie Award for Almost got ‘im.