Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ★★★★

Following the delightfully odd What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi confirms his credentials as the most appealing Kiwi filmmaker in operation today with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which takes an offbeat concept and invests it with an unexpected level of black wit, mordant humour and plenty of heart. Adapted from Barry Crump's novel Wild Pork and Watercress, and in the making by Waititi for over a decade, it almost allows for a semi career resurgence for Sam Neill, pitched as a grumpy widower in the wilderness of New Zealand who, thanks to an unexpected reversal of fortune, finds himself ward to the most unlikely foster child - a fat, angry, streetwise kid named Ricky, played with show-stopping charm by Julian Dennison. The result is a mixture of kidnap drama and unlikely road movie which doesn't tread familiar territory.

You can really feel the Antipodean nature of Waititi's filmmaking pour out of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, with its own unique sense of very dark humour. It begins, essentially, with a sudden death which throws the life of Hector, Neill's character, into a complete frenzy. Cantankerous in the extreme, Hector cannot even begin to understand wayward Ricky, a delinquent moved out of endless city foster homes after being abandoned by his mother, who's own rebellion against the prospect of going back to a life he hated sets he & Hector off on a comically absurd journey into the New Zealand wilderness.

Waititi's script is confident enough not to simply make this an obvious comedy, his writing layered with all kinds of comic and character ideas - from local hunters who assume Hector is sexually abusing his ward, to a near sociopathic social worker who hunts them ruthlessly (and quite ineptly) through the woods, it's a film which always keeps the story moving while quite beautifully unfolding this sweet, funny and darkly tragic friendship and surrogate, skewed father/son dynamic which begins to grow between Hector & Ricky. Waititi is always on hand for a gag to punctuate any threats of sentimentality though, and maintains a level of farce to proceedings to ensure events don't get too heavy.

The key to why Hunt for the Wilderpeople is so good, beyond some smart and intuitive direction, a sharp script and a pair of utterly charming lead performances, is how it's unafraid to shine a light on the deeper psychological issues of both its protagonists. The show belongs to Ricky, without a doubt, but Waititi's film is as much about loss and rediscovery in the old, not just the young. While being often silly and flimsy, it has a real river of honesty, depth and sadness which prevents it blowing away in the breeze. Delightfully observed, it's yet again a sign Waititi has his own mark and deserves increasing attention as a filmmaker.

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