Written by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rhys Darby, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House
Outcasts typically do not fit in with the majority either by choice or because of what they represent but that necessarily does not mean they should never have others to connect with. By both being outcasts in their own way, following the relationship by the two protagonists in this feature film makes for such a heartwarming experience but one filled with the brilliant dialogue of Taika Waiti when working at the height of his power.
Now on his last opportunity to stay with a foster family before getting sent to juvenile prison, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) gets sent to live with his aunt, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), and her husband Hector (Sam Neil). While initially reticent he finds connection until Bella’s untimely death leaving the friction between Hector and Ricky at an all-time high.
With his recent infatuation of playing within the Disney machine with its various franchises, and good for him for getting paid, Taika Waititi has never quite reached the apex he did when working with stories authentic to his people, and this particular brand of humor. Not to be thought of in a derogatory manner, but films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople feel like the work of a band making their art through passion along with sweat and tears as everything released afterward feels far too corporate. It needs to be said because of the freshness this film provides in all aspects of its filmmaking. Feels far more personal and as a result, much more fulfilling as a narrative.
On a story level, this feature does nothing groundbreaking but the manner in which it gets told and the amount of personality it has in every fiber just make it a special experience. It has a young boy who has never been treated with any semblance of love, which has, in turn, made him into a delinquent. Connecting with someone like Hector never had the best odds but the fact they build such a wonderful bond shows the magic of storytelling. Take this and add Waititi’s humor when firing on all cylinders and you get such a wonderful experience.
It must be said, Julian Dennison’s work in this feature is simply outstanding. Not only did he understand the assignment, but he also became a better vessel to deliver Waitit’s dialogue than the director himself. A beautiful combination of New Zealand humor brought forth by the actor and writer/director with the accent to boot as well. So many moments bring this gut-busting humor because of its delivery and it only gets funnier because of the way it counteracts the straightforward nature of Hector, portrayed by Sam Neill. Dennison and Neal became a wonderful combo as they provided an excellent sounding board for each other. With both seeking some level of connection with another but being nearly spitefully reticent to do so, the way they come together works wonders. It comes with a sense of rebellion on both of their parts from this overarching system, which makes their adventure together so engaging and satisfying.
As the hunt for these two begin as they defect following Bella’s death, it sparks from a misunderstanding but then turns into quite the pursuit. The pursuants are child services and the police as they believe a kidnapping has occurred and the chase provides its own source of humor. Most of it comes from Paula (Rachel House) the child welfare worker, who never misses an opportunity to tell the cameras that no child will be left behind. Every time she appears on screen she delivers plenty of laughs because of the absurdity of her character. Catching Ricky and Hector becomes more about the glory of ending this nationwide manhunt rather than for the well-being of the young boy and the way it slips out through the way she speaks delivers tremendous comedic value. Rachel House, along with several of the other supporting characters make this such a wonderfully New Zealand movie with the type of people Ricky and Hector run into. It adds another layer to the feature outside of the central relationship between the two leads.
The more Taika Waititi has moved away from making films taking place in his homeland, the more the quality has decreased. He has such a wonderful connection here and the humor to match it. Waititi has his customary cameo in this feature as a priest and it works so well in the short burst but you can just feel the difference working here. It feels far more authentic and genuine in working with the feelings of isolation of an urban outcast like Ricky much like on the rural side with Hector. It gives similar feelings to what he accomplishes in Boy in creating emotionally resonant work with plenty of heart and the comedy to match it.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople carries the marks of what makes a strong Taika Waiti film and exemplifies what makes him such a unique voice in filmmaking. Such a beautiful look at the bond made by these two individuals amidst quite a stressful moment in both of their lives. The film creates several moments of incredible humor along with some sad ones because of the reality of where the characters have found themselves. Such a lovely time.