An immensely charming, bittersweet treat that further demonstrates writer-director Taika Waititi’s firm mastery of tone as he heads off to join the Marvel juggernaut with the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, this proudly New Zealand-set dramedy is one Sundance hit that largely earns its rapturous early praise.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a young delinquent who is sent to live with his new foster parents, Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). However, when Bella suddenly dies, child services plan to take Ricky back into care, causing him to head into hiding in the bush, with Hec reluctantly giving pursuit. However, a manhunt is launched when the authorities, believing Hec to be mentally unstable following his wife’s death, assume he has kidnapped Ricky.
It’s an outlandish concept full of goofy affectations and silly dialogues, but Waititi also manages to ground his film through some terrific characterisation and an achingly humanistic tone that also refuses to be dour or mine misery for misery’s sake. It is, above all else, a fun adventure movie, directed with Waititi’s usual aplomb, even if leaping from this to a $200 million Marvel mammoth still seems undeniably strange.
As pithy as Waititi’s script is, though, it ultimately comes down the performances; newcomer Dennison is a delight as the young troublemaker, his chemistry with Neill’s Hec forming an ever-evolving emotional core that reaches a cathartic payoff by film’s end. Neill, on the other hand, has been hungry for a substantial role in quite some time, and this allows him to channel arguably some of his best work in years and years. An irascible man with a deep sense of heartbreak percolating beneath as he is, it may not be difficult to see where the movie’s going, but Waititi avoids trite sentiment in favour of emotional honesty.
With picturesque views of the New Zealand bush, riveting performances and a trove of emotional depth, this is another winner for a filmmaker who presently doesn’t seem to be capable of much wrong. Now let’s see how he fares on the biggest stage of them all.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is out now in the US and in UK cinemas this Friday