Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ★★★★½

It's not everyday that a well-lauded film can surprise me, but Taika Waititi's 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' is one such film. This is the first film I've seen of the up and coming New Zealand director and it certainly encourages me to investigate his earlier and upcoming films, because he is a real find!

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is sent by child welfare services to live in the country with foster mother Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, the grizzled old Hector (Sam Neill), or Uncle Hec. After an unexpected tragedy, Ricky runs away into the bush. He encounters Uncle Hec out in the wild, and the two forced to camp out in the wild for several weeks, whilst learning to get over their differences. Meanwhile, Paula (Rachel House) of child welfare services discovers the burnt remains of Ricky's failed attempt to fake his death, and comes to the conclusion that Uncle Hec went mad with grief, killed Ricky and disappeared. A national manhunt involving the police and military ensues to find Ricky and bring him back to child services for adoption.

The majority of the actors turn out solid performances. Speaking on a personal level, it was great to see Sam Neill in a film again, he lends himself to the role of this cantankerous but kind farmer, able to invoke tension with his mere presence as well as brilliant deadpan comedy. The young Dennison displays tremendous range and likability as Ricky, capturing the all too familiar image of a good-for-nothing youngster with nothing to like about him, and gradually shedding. Neill and Dennison have fantastic chemistry together, showing an often tense but ultimately warm relationship that sustains the entire venture. Te Wiata easily comes across as the best auntie you could ever ask for and brings a lot of hearty humour for the few scenes she is in House is very amusing (and a little unnerving) at just how invested she is in hunting this boy down, even alluding herself to the Terminator in film no less! She and her police officer partner, played by Oscar Knightley, are also very funny together with their back and forth bits of comedy.

The film is impressively shot by Lachlan Milne, capturing a stunning spectrum of seasonal colours and beauty of the New Zealand hills and forests, and makes the old landscapes look just as beatiful as any scene from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Maybe even more so. The score, while not exactly memorable, is spot on in every scene and accentuates the emotions and sense of adventure shared by Ricky and Uncle Hec.

While the plot itself isn't overly new and unlike anything you've ever seen (I was getting undertones of the characters of Carl and Russell from Pixar's Up throughout much of the film), but the execution is where the film really stands out.

This is one of the funniest films of the year by far, but it also packs in a lot of drama and deftly handled emotion as well. Despite their different backgrounds, there are a few key similarities between Ricky and Uncle Hec: they both wear their emotions on their sleeves, both are fairly misunderstood by the world at large, at times hurling insults or saying they hate each other but they both share a love for Auntie Bella that really keeps them from really getting at each other's throats. It could have been so easy to end up hating Ricky, but the film peels back more and more of his outer shell and we find that he loves reading and creating music and has an active imagination

The tone and the writing of the film are perhaps what raises it up beyond simply being good. Waititi was able to balance comedy and drama so well that after a particularly shocking and upsetting scene, also acted fantastically by Niell, he was able to get us all laughing again just a few short minutes later without making it feel like a complete tonal whiplash. It doesn't sugarcoat or mess around with what it would be like to live in the woods for several months, including all the dangers that comes with the territory, but the story still finds a way to make it look adventuresome and even fun in places. It's that right balance of seriousness and genuine warmth and fun that makes a film like this such a pleasure to watch.

At most, I would say that during the climax there were a few scenes between Ricky and Uncle Hec that did feel a little too harsh, even given the situation they were in. But it was understandable at the same time because of how they've been constantly pushed, both by the authorities and themselves as well, so it didn't feel forced.

I was highly invested and entertained throughout, and as soon as it was over I immediately wanted to rewind and watch it again! To those who haven't seen it yet, I cannot recommend this film enough.

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