Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople

If you haven’t yet heard of writer/director/actor Taika Waititi, you probably will soon. He’s best known for slightly off-the-radar films like Eagle vs. Shark and What We Do in the Shadows as well as for working with fellow New Zealander comedians Jemaine Clement and Rhys Darby. His newest release, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, could be the film that breaks him out with U.S. audiences. Oh, and there’s that other thing he’s directing now, Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. That could be big, too.

Based on Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a thirteen-year-old who’s done a few bad things. Ricky isn’t a bad kid, but he’s been bad enough to get him sent out to live with his foster aunt and foster uncle (Sam Neill) in the backwoods of New Zealand. Once Ricky arrives there, of course, things go a bit sideways and he eventually ends up on the run with his uncle. Comedy ensues.

As far as story archetypes, there aren’t too many surprises here. There’s the grouchy uncle who doesn’t like the kid from the city. We know life in the bush is going to be hard on the kid from the city. We’re reasonably certain that if the man and the kid just get to know each other, everything will probably be okay. And lastly, regardless of what happens, they’re both going to learn a lot about themselves in the process.

Don’t worry, though. This is no cookie cutter movie. The beauty of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in the unconventional way it starts with these staples and unfolds into a story, the way it zigs when we expect it to zag. The film is divided into chapters, each one moving the story in a slightly new direction. These installments give it the feeling of a novel or fairy tale, with titles like “A Normal Life,” “The Bad Egg,” and “Broken Foot Camp.”

Although Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a comedy, it deals with serious issues, but it does so with minimal melodrama and a distinct lack of saccharine. It doesn’t brush these things off or treat them as facile or inconsequential, though. In what seems like a simple tale, there’s a lot of story happening, and it’s all important.

Then there are the first-rate performances. Neill and Dennison are brilliant, but the entire cast makes the film. Rima Te Wiata is a delight as Ricky’s Auntie Bella, and Rachel House and Oscar Kightley are both menacing and hilarious as a child welfare worker and her sidekick police officer. Flight of the Conchords’s Rhys Darby also appears in a small but pivotal role as Psycho Sam, a deranged conspiracy-obsessed survivalist.

The other notable star of the film, of course, is the back country of New Zealand, and it serves as a constant reminder of why Peter Jackson chose to film his The Lord of the Rings trilogy in his home. At times, in fact, the scenery shots are so breathtakingly beautiful that they look almost unreal.

At its heart, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is funny, silly, and poignant in the same way life itself is all of those things, not in spite of its rough edges but because of them. Also in the way of life, this film is full of unexpectedly lovely and profound moments that we might easily miss if we aren’t paying attention.

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“Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople