Hunt for the Wilderpeople deals with pop culture worship and using the fake as means to not be wrought down by the real. It does so in an oddly unsettling but hilarious way that American movies are incapable of due to their smoke-screened reliance on those farcical ideas as pipeline. That’s not a critique of the Hollywood system, but rather me citing the inherent advantage a foreign film not featuring a Matthew McConaughey or a Sandra Bullock on the poster has when it comes to touching on the more cynical. Wilderpeople, from New Zealand director/producer/writer Taika Waititi (2010’s Boy, next year’s Thor: Ragnarok), isn’t about pop culture as escapism, but that concept runs through the film’s DNA from start to finish.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is one of those kids bouncing around the system, from foster home to foster home, likely due to some combination of adults’ lack of compassion and his own defiant nature. He’s a city kid thrust into the country but far from hardened or street smart despite his fascination with 2pac and using “gangsta” as an all-encompassing positive adjective. His new foster parents, Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill) are people of simple pleasures, and there’s an adjustment period for Ricky.
Then the plot wheels begin to turn. Bella dies. The government sends a letter saying they’re coming back for Ricky. Ricky runs off into the mountains. “Uncle” Hec goes to find him. The gov’t comes and upon seeing an empty house assuming Hec has kidnapped Ricky, a comedic manhunt ensues. The strong, silent, classically masculine Hec slowly forms a bond with the mouthy but kindhearted kid. You’ve watched or read this story many times before, but Wilderpeople mines every last bit of humor and heart out of this formula thanks to impressive principle performances and Waititi’s mastery of tonal balance.
Sam Neill gives a career-best turn in a role that’s almost an extension of his Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park, at least in the sense that he initially hates kids here. He’s a walking cliché; but Neill never tries too hard to sell his gruffness. You watch this film and it’s not hard to imagine a late-career renaissance for Neill as a go-to character actor. Nearly everything he says or does here is in direct response to Ricky. Is there anyone better than Sam Neill when it comes to snidely responding to children? Dennison’s work as Ricky is a revelation. He handles the dialogue perfectly. When the script asks him to mispronounce something, he does so in a way that’s cute but sad given the weight of his past the film only implies. Years of heartbreak and relative solidarity can be seen in Ricky’s eyes, while his cadence of speech suggests a supreme confidence. It’s an incredibly detailed performance by Dennison, and he’s just thirteen (I think).
Waititi, DoP Lachlan Milne, and the editing team rely heavily on the New Zealand landscape without their sequences ever feeling like something on Discovery Channel (cough cough The Revenant). When the camera hones in, usually inside the forest, it sits still and allows the blocking of Dennison and Neill to do the work. In many shots, Dennison is just slightly off center. Visual comedy is found in the way his pudgy frame looks layered amongst naturally lit woodlands. Ricky is out of his element at first and the photography adds to it; rare that photography framed so intricately feels no natural.
Certain moments –like when the social worker/police are hot on the trail of Ricky and Uncle- are cut together in this musical way that feels so lighthearted despite the fact that a NATIONAL MANHUNT is ensuing and people think Uncle is a pervert. This is a chase film, a coming-of-age story, a play on nontraditional father/son dynamics, and a genuine ballbusting comedy all blended into an intoxicating cocktail that manages to be greater than the sum of its parts despite those parts maybe not being particularly noteworthy on their own.
I’m excited to watch Waititi’s career unfold and excited to see how his brand of filmmaking fits within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a damn near-perfect movie; one those of works where every element looks so carefully calculated but plays so naturally in motion.