With his dark comedic scripts, quirky set pieces and kitsch cinematography, director Taika Waititi is like a Kiwi Wes Anderson. Following on from the success of his 2014 hit What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi's new film Hunt For The Wilderpeople offers up another cynicism-free, feel good alternative to just about everything else that’s out there, and - quite simply - it's fantastic.
Set in the dense bushland of New Zealand’s east coast, Hunt For The Wilderpeople tells the story of Ricky Baker - a troublesome ten year old orphan who, after years of delinquency, is on his last chance before being institutionalised. That last chance comes in the form of country couple Bella and Hec (played by Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neil). Bella is an unflappably positive soul, the kind of no-nonsense straight talker you can't help but love from the moment you meet her, and her approach to Ricky is enough to quickly convince him to cease his nightly attempts at escape. Hec, by contrast, is the definition of loner. Bearded and bedraggled, he’s an old-school bushman whose tolerance for companionship begins and ends with his wife Bella and their scrappy old dog.
The story takes a turn, however, when Hec and Ricky find themselves stranded in the bush and unable to return until Hec’s fractured leg can heal. Worse still, to the outside world, it’s assumed Hec has actually kidnapped Ricky, resulting in both police and rescue teams being brought in to hunt down the perceived paedophile. So begins a touching and terrifically funny ‘odd couple on the run’ story that lovingly and faithfully harks back to various NZ comedies of the 80s.
As Ricky, newcomer Julian Dennison puts in an accomplished and confident performance, imbuing his character with a lovely sensitivity masked by a veneer of wannabe gangsterism. Neil, likewise, is fantastic as the crotchety old Hec, pacing his inevitable softening towards Ricky with just the right amount of snarl and sneer. The other key performance of note comes from Rachel House as Ricky’s dedicated child services appointee Paula. Playing it like a hard-edged cop from a noir film, Paula considers herself a relentless pursuer akin to the Terminator, and her verbal battles with Ricky offer up an almost unceasing stream of laugh-out-loud moments.
This is a film that constantly surprises. Offbeat, intimate and impressively affecting despite its farcical nature, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is one 2016’s strongest films to date.