Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ★★★★½

"Shit just got real."

I was, admittedly, late to the coming-out party for Taika Waititi, having somehow missed both What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople until the last month or so. After finally getting around to the brilliantly funny What We Do in the Shadows, though, I immediately reserved a copy of Hunt for the Wilderpeople from the local library, eager to dive into my next Waititi experience. Thankfully, I was not disappointed in the slightest; Waititi is really onto something with this unique comedic voice of his.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is held together by a fantastic script from Waititi, based on a novel by Barry Crump. In this, as in What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi's strength lies in his characterizations, which are quirky and interesting enough to make offbeat, memorable dialogue feel funny, fresh, and natural. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) are a wonderful protagonist duo, played to perfection. Memorable side characters, such as Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata), Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), and "Psycho" Sam (Rhys Darby) each add charm and humor to their respective scenes, and Rachel House's Paula is the perfect antagonist for this coming-of-age adventure.

There is a charm to Ricky Baker--the rap-loving, haiku-writing, gangster runaway--that is undeniable here. We have seen the "criminal with a heart of gold" trope before, but never has that criminal been a 13-year-old orphan on the run from child services. The uniqueness of the whole affair is as refreshing as it is funny... and it is very funny. All of this would've been for naught if Waititi's writing couldn't deliver on the humor, but there are laughs aplenty here.

Taika Waititi's love for his native New Zealand is palpable. The decision to shoot on location in the bush makes the film a beautiful poem (haiku?) about his homeland, and his decision to cast native Māori actors is a wonderful bit of authentic, diverse casting. For a film where the setting is almost a character in and of itself, Waititi is careful to make sure that he gets the setting absolutely correct.

With What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, this stage of Waititi's career feels a little like Rob Reiner's excellent run of first-rate comedies in the 80s. If the mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was his This Is Spinal Tap, with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, perhaps this is his Stand By Me, a coming-of-age tale of survival, friendship, and growing up. If the trend continues, I can't wait until he delivers his takes on The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally.

"Yeah. Shit just got real."

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