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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Reviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 07/08/16 05:00:00

"New Zealand’s Most Wanted"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I will not begin this review by complaining about the paint-by-numbers nature of many of the unnecessary sequels hitting the screen this summer or the dismal quality of much of the fare currently playing at the local chain-driven “specialty” houses that serve as counter-programming. Been there, done that, would be a movie review cliché. Instead, I would like to celebrate a jewel found amongst the detritus, a film that is charming and unpretentious, a film that feels like a breath of fresh air and renews your love for the movies: Taika Waititi’s odd-couple, New Zealand-set tale “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”

The fabulously clever vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” one of last year’s most underrated comedies, was my first exposure to Waititi. I have yet to see his first two films (“Boy” and “Eagle vs. Shark”) and, frankly, “Flight of the Conchords”, the HBO series for which he wrote and directed several episodes, was not exactly my cup of tea. But “What We Do in the Shadows” had me in stitches: a clever, tongue-in-cheek, loving satire of every single vampire film, TV series, comic book and novel in existence. Based on Barry Crump’s novel “Wild Pork and Watercress,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is far more quiet, more measured, more intimate and yet more expansive. It is also outrageously funny and quirky and earnest…and incredibly touching and endearing. Waititi throws into a blender a wide variety of influences and pop culture references —the films of Wes Anderson, Walt Disney’s wildlife adventure films from the 50s, the core story from Pixar’s “Up,” Tupac Shakur, “Scarface,” buddy movies, and even “The Terminator” and “Lord of the Rings”— and mixes them into a tasty but never sugary shake.

As the movie opens, the soon-to-be 13-year-old Ricky (Julian Dennison), who’s been taken from foster home to foster home after his mother abandoned him many years ago, is driven by welfare officials thru the New Zealand countryside to the home of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec Faulkner (Sam Neill). Belle is all hugs and warmth sprinkled with some teaspoonfuls of eccentricity; Hec is your prototypical grumpy old bearded man who asks if Ricky is good at work or if he’ll just be an ornament. Welfare bureaucrat Paula (Rachel House, evoking, in fashion and demeanor, the wicked Agatha Trunchbull from Danny DeVito’s vital adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda”) warns them that Ricky is one “bad egg” and that this family may be his last chance at a normal life before he’s thrown into a juvenile facility. Bella will have none of it and cheerily embraces Ricky as a brand new member of the family.

Ricky likes to see himself as a “gangsta” (hoodie included), his knowledge of the world based on the movies and music he’s seen and heard at each home, and on the creative exercises (he likes to write haikus) and social worker-speak he’s been exposed to government employees. He tries to escape every night from the Faulkner household but goes as far as some nearby hills before he comes back to a hearty breakfast, a warm bed and some no-nonsense earthy advise from Bella. This is the first place where Ricky truly feels at home, where he truly feels loved for the first time. There’s no better expression of that love than on his 13th birthday party when Bella treats him to a corny and heartfelt song played in her toy keyboard and gives him a dog he promptly names Tupac.

Tragedy soon strikes and both Hec and Ricky find themselves on the run in the New Zealand bush from that child-care worker and the government forces she manages to finagle. It’s a reluctant partnership, as it was always meant to be, between a child who sees in this great big adventure an opportunity to reenact his favorite movies and rap lyrics and an old illiterate man who’d much rather be left alone in the woods. Along the way, this unlikely duo meet a cast of equally quirky and unique characters: a group of hunters who mistake Hec for a pederast after Ricky’s unwise choice of words in describing their relationship; a young girl who speaks at a faster clip than Ricky; her selfie-loving relative; and, most memorable of all, “Psycho Sam” (Rhys Darby), a man obsessed with government conspiracies. Unbeknownst to them, Hec and Ricky have become a media sensation. However, not everything is fun and games as they encounter dead bodies, wild hogs and other dangers, animal and man-made.

The above synopsis does not do justice to a film that, given its eccentricities, feels firmly grounded. Waititi gives his characters depth and weight; and like any director worthy of the title, Waititi gives his actors room to explore their characters, to bring to the surface their unique qualities without overplaying them. Waititi never looks down on these characters the way other hispterish filmmakers would. They are all decent folk, if a tad misguided. Waititi is also one of those rare directors who gives equal weight to the small details, those small actions that add heft to the story.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” offers, for my money, the best depiction of a child’s sense of wonder, awe and even confusion ever brought to the big or small screen. Waititi couldn’t have found a better actor to portray Ricky. There is nothing forced in Julian Dennison’s performance; he thinks, acts and responds like a kid and not like an artificial construct. And in Sam Neill, Waititi found the perfect foil for Dennison. As we see Hec evolve as a character, Neill reveals the heart that lies beneath that hard exterior, a man touched by tragedy but shaped by the landscape. Neill is one of those actors we take for granted; it’s good to see him carry every frame of a film that does not have the word “Jurassic” in its title.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” may stumble here and there (the rhythm is at times a bit off) but it quickly recovers, shaking the dust of its sleeves. It’s the work of a confident, self-assured, literate and generous filmmaker. Some critics lament the fact that he has taken the helm of “Thor: Ragnarok” fearing that his unique vision will succumb to the needs of a franchise-driven studio. Me? I am curious to see what this director, so in love with pop culture and its influences, will be able to get away with in the Marvel Universe.

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