Light-hearted adventure about a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the New Zealand bush. Clueless authorities instigate a national manhunt. Strong comedy chemistry between Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Wilderpeople will hope to capitalise on the success of Waititi’s last feature, the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. The film stars Sam Neill, which will help lend a little marquee sizzle, but the biggest attraction may very well be Waititi, whose track record of low-key comedies (including 2007’s Eagle Vs Shark) has earned him a loyal cult following. Expect good reviews and nice buzz coming out of Park City.
Newcomer Julian Dennison plays Ricky, a 13-year-old who has been bouncing around foster homes his whole life until he’s taken in by the kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband Hec (Neill). Ricky thinks he’s finally found a stable family environment, but after Bella dies suddenly, he isn’t sure if he wants to live with Hec, running away to the surrounding New Zealand bush before Hec tracks him down. Unfortunately, because Ricky burned down part of Hec’s property before he left — and since both men are deep in the bush and unreachable — authorities mobilise a manhunt to track them down, suspecting that perhaps Hec has kidnapped the boy.
Waititi, who will soon be making the transition from independent comedies to blockbuster filmmaking when he takes the reins of the next Thor movie, sharpens his trademark deadpan style to a fine point with Wilderpeople, populating the story with funny characters who get laughs from underplaying their punch lines.
As the sarcastic, vulnerable Ricky, Dennison is a marvel of blasé reactions, talking about his love of the so-called thug life with such laidback ease that just about everything that comes from his inexpressive mouth is hysterical. But the young man also nicely walks the line between pathos and sentimentality, showing that Ricky just wants to feel needed by someone, slowly building a connection with Hec as they both try to evade the police.
Neill could have portrayed Hec as just one-note cantankerous, but there’s a kindliness in his eyes that suggests that he, too, has a fear of being abandoned. Like Ricky, Hec has always felt like an outsider, and we soon see how Bella’s death has affected both men in much the same way. The veteran actor brings an effortless command to the role, and Hec’s emerging fondness for the teenager is as predictable as it is enjoyable to behold.
Indeed, Wilderpeople doesn’t spend a lot of time playing up the personality clashes between Hec and Ricky, instead letting them settle into a contentious but good-natured ribbing of one another. The reasons for the urgency behind the manhunt would involve ruining some choice jokes, but let it be said that Waititi believably transitions from comedy to a more suspenseful tone as the net draws tighter around our heroes.
Although the film largely focuses on laughs, Waititi deftly weaves in an emotional undercurrent so that there’s a sense of real stakes. For both men, being caught has genuine consequences — Hec has been to prison before, and Ricky fears he’ll continue to be shuffled through disinterested foster families — and we feel their anxiety. Remarkably, though, at the same time that Wilderpeople becomes a moving father-and-son story, we’re laughing at the filmmaker’s spot-on references to everything from The Lord Of The Rings to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is a lovely small film that does nothing momentous but exudes such a happy glow.
TIM GRIERSON, Screen Daily, 23 JANUARY 2016
A hard-to-handle foster kid from the big city and a grouchy bushman in his sixties are forced to forge an unlikely alliance to survive in the New Zealand wilderness in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a deliciously good time at the movies. An adaptation of Wild Pork and Watercress from the late and legendary New Zealand outdoorsman and novelist Barry Crumb, this familiar but perfectly balanced blend of drama and comedy, action and heart was directed by actor-director Taika Waititi, known for his work on projects such as the vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows and also the director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
Based on the evidence here, that hire was a brilliant move on Marvel’s part, as Waititi is fully in command of Wilderpeople, his biggest and most ambitious film to date. With Kiwi legend Sam Neill and impressive local up-and-comer Julian Dennison (Shopping, Paper Planes) headlining the proceedings, this should again do solid business at home — where Waititi’s 2010 feature Boyremains the highest-grossing local film of all time — while also exciting distributors further afield.
The film kicks off with the delivery of rotund and taciturn 13-year-old Ricky Baker (Dennison) at a dilapidated cottage in the middle of the New Zealand bush. As explained by a barking employee of Child Welfare, Paula (Rachel House), Ricky, who has changed homes frequently, has a history of getting into trouble. However, his new adoptive mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), isn’t concerned in the slightest, not even after he’s run away during his first night in his new home, telling him to come back in for breakfast before continuing his escape.
Waititi is most famous internationally for his comedic work — which besides Shadows also includes work on Flight of the Concords — and his nimble adaptation here combines solid writing with an entire bag of filmmaking tricks that includes visual gags, unexpected cuts and quick montage sequences to score laughs from the get-go. He also cleverly exploits who these people are to get the audience in stitches.
In all films except for childish comedies, it would considered bad taste to make jokes about the fact Ricky’s overweight, for example. Here, they are placed in the mouth of the no-nonsense yet big-hearted countrywoman Bella, and it’s hard not to crack up and be touched at the same time, since they come across as terms of endearment from someone with a tough-as-nails, tell-it-like-it-is worldview. (Te Wiata’s carefully calibrated performance has a lot to do with finding the right tone as well.) Similarly, Ricky’s incongruous interest in haikus to express his feelings, which he seems to have picked up from one of the no-doubt countless shrinks he’s been forced to see in his recent past, is used simultaneously as a source of humor and character information, with a few of them neatly (if also somewhat predictably) woven into the film’s final stretch.
The bulk of the story takes place after Bella’s suddenly exits the picture and Ricky is forced to escape into the bush with Bella’s partner, the scruffy curmudgeon Hector or Hec (Neill). As in all mismatched buddy stories, the sixtysomething doesn’t like his 13-year-old new charge very much, though the kid insists they escape into the bush together, since otherwise he’ll be forced to go to juvie.
Indeed, the two are polar opposites in more ways than one: Apart from the differences in age and experience, Ricky is a city slicker while Hec is a real outdoors expert, as the costumes (by Kristin Seth) also keep reminding us, with the boy’s new and colorful hoodie, baseball jacket and cap standing in stark contrast to Hec’s much more practical, camouflage-colored and lived-in gear. Hec’s experience in this field will allow them to survive for months in the country’s virginal forests, while they hide from the increasingly large man- and childhunt led by Paula, the local police and, eventually, the military. Even when Hector fractures his foot and can’t walk properly for several weeks, they manage to survive because he instructs Ricky in the ways of the bush. This leads to quite a few comic setpieces as the boy, who’s appalled at the idea of having to survive without toilet paper, tries to get the hang of how to live in the forest.
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople — the title comes from Ricky likening the duo to wildebeests, known for their long treks — is divided into novelistic chapters with titles such as “The Bad Egg,” or “Broken Foot Camp”. They not only help recall the film’s source material but also help to further infuse their journey with something epic, as it suggests many other chapters were left out for this condensed version of events. Along the way, Waititi alternates moments of action, including some ferocious wild pig action (courtesy of The Lord of the Rings’ FX company Weta); countless moments of humor (a highlight is their stay with the off-the-grid-living Psycho Sam, played by Rhys Darby) and also touching moments of drama, including a nighttime conversation in a bunk bed that’s played just right, staying miles away from syrupy sentiment even as the two men allow themselves to shed some light on their feelings.
A chapter called “War” was no-doubt something Marvel looked at before handing Waititi the reins of their Thor franchise, and he handles the large-scale action sequences here with aplomb, always respecting spatial coherence while making sure the proceedings also contain a certain wow-factor. But finally, what makes Wilderpeople memorable is how attached audiences become to the characters, and as played by Dennison and Neill, they are two fully realized, full of flaws but nonetheless oh-so loveable human beings.
Boyd van Hoeij, The Hollywood Reporter, 23/1/2016