Hunt For The Wilderpeople (PG). Director: Taika Waititi. Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Rhys Darby. 101 minutes
Back in 2010, Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi's Boy was nothing if not a crowd-pleaser. Blending surreal comedy with tragic elements and understated socioeconomic commentary, the feel-good coming of age comedy won Most Popular Feature Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival, among a raft of other honours.
Having during the intervening years given us the clever Wellington-set vampire spoof What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi returns to familiar thematic territory (and the rural New Zealand setting of Boy) in Hunt For The Wilderpeople, with a story about a troubled foster kid, Ricky Baker (Dennison), who goes on the run from the government rather than facing a stint in 'juvie'. The sold-out Monday night screening this reviewer attended is in itself evidence that it is no less of a crowd-pleaser.
We don't know a great deal about Ricky's background. What we do know we learn from a Terminator-like child welfare officer, Paula (a hilarious House), who is fond of listing his misdemeanours (ranging from stealing and 'burning stuff' to spitting and 'kicking stuff'). At the start of the film Paula deposits Ricky at the idyllic rural homestead of Bella (Wiata) and her husband Hector (Neill).
It's the last chance for Ricky, who has been through a lot of other homes before winding up at Bella and Hector's. Again we don't know the detail of these experiences, but it is telling that the natural nurturer Bella's smallest gestures — cooking breakfast for Ricky, or putting a hot water bottle in his bed at night — are, it seems, kindnesses like none he has ever known. It contrasts with Paula's mantra of 'No child left behind', which on her lips becomes at worse menacing, at best a bureaucratic inanity.
"Her smallest gestures — cooking breakfast for Ricky, or putting a hot water bottle in his bed — are kindnesses like none he has ever known."
The bulk of the film finds Hector and Ricky, following a turn of events at home, on the run in the wilderness, a comedic caper that draws an ever escalating manhunt from Paula and her cohorts. They are unlikely allies, Ricky the would-be gangsta and Hector, the cantankerous bushman who has actually done time in prison, and who never wanted Ricky in the first place. Yet both have experienced loss and both have struggled to belong, and so slowly a friendship blooms that might just promise healing and redemption for both of them.
If that sounds maudlin, it's not. Whatever the seriousness of its content at times, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is endlessly entertaining and hilarious, thanks to its pacy, polished script and top notch performances, especially from relative newcomer Dennison. The setting and the storybook structure (the film is divided into ten short chapters) lend it an almost mythical air (there's even an excellent Lord of the Rings sight gag), which sets the tone for some genuinely bizarre digressions; keep an eye out for Rhys Darby (of Flight Of The Conchords fame) in an extended, scene-stealing cameo as the eccentric bush dweller Psycho Sam.
Tim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.