New Zealand: a country known for its beautiful landscape, the kiwi, and Maori warriors. Within the film industry, the country is most well known for Peter Jackson and his work on The Lord of the Rings. With films like Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople, we can now add the name Taika Waititi to the list of notable New Zealand directors. Recently, Waititi’s films have received larger and larger notice within the industry, which can explain why Marvel has given him creative control with the upcoming film Thor: Ragnarok.
After a series of misdemeanors and jumping from foster home to foster home, teenager Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) finds himself in yet another household under the care of foster parents Bella and Hector. Ricky, lover of all things gangster, avoids any sort of loving connection from his foster parents and seeks the wilderness as refuge. After Ricky gets lost exploring the nearby woods, Bella’s confined and equally gloomy husband Hector (Sam Neill) must set out in search of the rebellious child. What seemed like a cake walk goes awry after various incidents lead to the two outcasts becoming fugitives.
Written and directed by Waititi, it is assumed that the film falls under the same humorous spectrum as his past films, and true to form, that is exactly what he delivers. Just about every character within the film offers enough humor to make a hilarious comedy all while staying grounded. Nothing too far-fetched occurs within the realism of the film, but there is a heightened emphasis on comedy, that seems somewhat over-exaggerated, making it an instant classic from a comedic standpoint . The writing shines most as Neill and Dennison share the screen.
Though the two characters couldn’t be more different, the chemistry between Hector and Ricky is what really makes the film stand out. Wilderpeople could have easily showcased an overly grumpy Hector whose transgression is fueled by the thuggish Ricky, yet the combination of a well-written screenplay and fantastic acting presents a relationship that maintains a sense of heartfelt tranquility. Never once do you lose interest as the story and acting remain fresh throughout the film’s run-time, which is even feat in itself, even for big budget films.
Neill’s performance screams to mainstream audiences that he’s not just the Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park, as he gives one of his best portrayals of recent memory. There’s more to him than simply another irate older man, as he demonstrates a profound sense of affection and respect, offering as much dry humor as some more touching sequences. Newcomer Julian Dennison also makes his mark by showcasing charisma while still establishing the character’s soul, filled with abandonment and loneliness. What makes the dynamic most refreshing is the fact that it feels genuine: an estranged uncle gradually bonding with his nephew’s unfamiliar lifestyle and personality (subverting the oft-repeated father-son relationship).
The cinematography is yet another positive component of the film. Through clever editing, ordinary montages of jungle-travelling become eye candy, as it depicts how truly lost one would be within the bush. Wilderpeople also provides an eye-opening view at the diversity of both landscape and seasons of New Zealand, as they travel from mountainous regions during winter to the flat plains in spring. Accompanied by impressive camera techniques is the score. It’s difficult to compare the music as it is an amalgamation between retro-synth music, Polynesian rhythms, and folk. The film’s opening track “Makutakahu” sets the mood that a wondrous journey will take place.
One may go into the film expecting a simple indie-flick with enough humor to give the film a passing grade; however, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is far from that. With Waititi’s talent, the film is able to string the audience from beginning to finish as they pray for the film to never end. It’s an argumentative example that proves the indie industry should be better represented within theaters worldwide, as, it is not only a great film, but one of the year’s best.