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Film Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016; Directed by Taika Waititi)

It’s becoming evident, four titles into his directorial career, that much of the charm, appeal, and goofy brilliance of Taika Waititi’s films is difficult to encapsulate in brief, conventional descriptions of their subject matter and generic associations. It’s hugely unfair, though not entirely inaccurate, to describe Eagle vs. Shark as a sort of deadpan Kiwi Napoleon Dynamite; watch dubiousness creep into the features of interested parties when, in an attempt to sell them on What We Do in the Shadows, you summarize it as a mockumentary about vampires. Those films are those things but they are also much more (as, I imagine, Boy is more than a mere coming-of-age drama, though I confess that I haven’t seen it). They are, above all, inspired comedies, and Waititi’s disdain for categories and genres is part and parcel of his comic sensibility.

Waititi seeks out collaborators who vibrate on his comic wavelength, and his co-starring duo in the hugely enjoyable Hunt for the Wilderpeople buzz away nicely. The wildly mismatched pair of young Maori actor Julian Dennison (Waititi himself is half-Maori, half-Russian-Jewish) and New Zealand-rooted international thespian Sam Neill are at the centre of this quirky but entirely accessible and endearing unlikely-duo buddy comedy about a brash foster kid and his highly reluctant not-exactly-guardian who go evade the national authorities in the New Zealand bush for months. Both are brilliant. Dennison is a burst of verbose energy in hip-hop urban street gear who refers to Tupac Shakur as his “best friend” and names his dog after him, expresses his feelings through loopy haikus (“Kingi, you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain”), and utters ridiculous aspirational-gangsta adolescent truisms like “I didn’t choose the skux life, the skux life chose me!”. Neill sells his character’s solitary cantakerousness as a reasonable response to a life of disappointment and pain, but lets Dennison’s likable chatty confidence break down his prickly resistance as their quest-of-sorts goes on.

This quest-of-sorts begins with the end of an abortive stab at family-unit normalcy. Dennison’s Ricky Baker is introduced as having passed through many foster homes, with a litany of troublemaking and petty crime related through one of Waititi’s wonderfully-composed montages. The narration of Ricky’s past is provided by Paula (Rachel House), a child welfare worker with an awkwardly oversized sense of no-nonsense, tough-love grandeur of purpose and a bumbling cop sidekick, Andy (Oscar Kightley). Paula drops off Ricky for his last-ditch attempt at sticking with a family before being thrown into juvenile prison, at the remote farm owned by the kooky but affectionate Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cranky husband Hector (Neill), whom she calls “Hec” (and which sounds, in her broad Kiwi accent, like a mild curse whenever she utters it).

Bella’s rough-hewn, unconventional country warmth finds the chinks in Ricky’s sullen teenaged armour. Even as she shocks and traumatizes him by bloodily dispatching a wild boar, she can summon a touchingly quirky 13th birthday party, with cake and candles, a hilariously odd birthday song, and the gangbusters gift of Tupac, the loyal canine companion. But tragedy intrudes, and Ricky is left alone with Hec with child welfare due to descend to take him away again. Ricky desperately retreats into the bush, where he is comically unsuited for enduring survival. Hec has a bit more experience at and inclination for life in the woods (he calls it “the knack”), but does not encourage Ricky’s scheme, at least until after his ankle injury strands them in the bush long enough to make them the targets of a national manhunt.

What unfolds is, in many ways, a classic quest-in-the-wilderness narrative (Waititi includes an overt, and openly noted, homage to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, New Zealand cinema’s greatest success and grandest on- and off-screen odyssey). But Waititi keeps things fresh and unique, always. Ricky and Hec have run-ins with hostile but inept reward-focused hunters, wild beasts, a paranoid, anti-government, off-the-grid bushman called Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby, along with House a previous Waititi-verse player), and a desultory encounter with a Maori daughter-father duo (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne and Troy Kingi) whose remote residence may offer a chance at some approximation of home.

Quirky humour (of which there is much) is keenly balanced with pathos and feeling, as Waititi expertly slows down the comic pace to allow Ricky and Hec’s interludes of loss and sadness to land and to breathe. The excellent musical soundtrack, including cuts from Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen but mostly provided by NZ electro-pop band Moniker (whose members previously scored Eagle vs. Shark and Boy as the Phoenix Foundation), underscores and drives the film’s finely-tuned energy. The music is sometimes even allowed its own comic showcases. A Cadbury Flake jingle and angelic lighting combine to amusingly express Ricky’s crush on the Maori girl, Kahu. Most memorable is the scorched-earth final car chase (a nod to another Down Under film classic, George Miller’s Mad Max), when the 1980s synth burst of “Milestone 2 (Skux Life)” provides the surge of that sequence with delightfully destabilizing comic spikes in the form of repetition of the film’s memorably odd dialogue highlights: “Majestical / we are the Wilderpeople / skux life”.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (pronounced with a short “I”, like “wildebeest”, a Ricky Baker-ism gleaned from a nature book they happen upon) is based on the 1980s national bestseller Wild Pork and Watercress by legendary NZ author Barry Crump, a hugely popular writer who, from what I can glean, bridged the gap between Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and P.G. Wodehouse in a peculiarly Kiwi idiom. Waititi brings his own peculiarities to the material, even embedding sociological suggestions of the struggles and deprivations of the colonized Maori minority in Ricky’s past in the foster system. While generally a massive delight, Wilderpeople isn’t flawless. House’s Paula, whose militaristic authoritarian tendencies get out of hand as she spearheads the search for Ricky and Hec, is given far more screen time than her relatively limited comic construction can sustain, which only emphasizes suspension-of-belief issues with the actions of child services in general here. I wonder, too, if the Psycho Sam interlude is placed in quite the right place in the film’s arc, so close to the conclusion.

But these are minor quibbles, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople remains a considerable delight. We will see how resilient Taika Waititi’s trademarked quirky humour and tweaking of convention proves to be when faced with a Hollywood megabudget and a lucrative franchise property: his next directorial gig is Thor: Ragnarok in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does, in that film and in his other, likely stranger, future outings. If the strength of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is any indication, it should be quite enjoyable.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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