44 Films: Film 16 of 44: Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016)
Film 16 of 44:
"Hunt For The Wilderpeople" (2016)
Written and Directed by Taika Waititi.
Taika Waititi is doing for New Zealand what Scorsese did for Italian-American New York. He's making love stories from and to the land of his birth and upbringing, except where Scorsese chose grit and scale, Waititi does it with a now recognisable and still inimitable charm. And he's getting better at it too, which is to say that he has found that intriguing balance between creating authentic, indigenous films, while wowing a growing global audience.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople's premise is simple, perhaps Waititi's most simple yet. 9-year old Ricky Baker (an unforgettably fascinating and versatile Julian Dennison) is a haiku-uttering problem child who gets consigned to a foster home in up-country New Zealand. He is introduced to his new foster parents, who by some familial parlance he christens Aunt Bella (the hilarious Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (a grizzled outdoors-ey Sam Neill). The expected drama and teething pains drift by briskly, much to our relief, and we come to the real meat of the story when, quite suddenly, Ricky is rendered unworthy of staying in his new home (for reasons I won't reveal) and escapes to the wilderness to avoid being returned to a juvenile centre. Uncle Hec goes after him, and after a delightfully brief chase, the two become the subjects of a nationwide manhunt whose reasons remain vague, but whose spiritedness throws us headlong into a story of loyalty, trust and chance. The hunt itself leads to a delightfully zany climax that is as endearing as it is indulgent. Such simplicity and commitment to entertain is novelty now.
Waititi is one of those filmmakers that comes around only so often, and I wish we could wrap him in a cocoon, just so that his growth would continue untainted, from his internal impetus, and not from the external pressures whose intentions are not as noble. He has a sense for endearing moments and characters. I can't imagine a more fitting cast for this sort of story. Dennison is a refreshing gem, and Sam Neill's form is back. There isn't a single misstep in their combined performance, even when events get pointedly absurd.
This film has the the sensibilities of a comedy classic coupled with a refreshing handle on pop culture. It forsakes cheap gags (we're looking at you Hollywood) for unexpected gratified belly laughs, the kind reserved for people you have an affection for. Take the scene where Ricky faces off with one of the bad guys, and their verbal battle for superiority denotes the winner as The Terminator, and the loser as Sarah Connor, "and in the first one too, before she could do chin-ups". These moments of delight are incessant. We are hardly done recovering from one when another quote, song, quirk or montage comes along. And still, there's enough tension, drama and pure humanity to keep us engaged and empathetic. While watching this, I felt something I don't feel often enough; comradeship and appreciation. The Wilderpeople are my friends, and the filmmakers like me.
Waititi's next project is Thor: Ragnarok (2017). I am pretty sure that if the American studios do that thing to Waititi that they do to even the most solid directors, and Thor turns out to be dismal, he could still come back to this native wellspring. I imagine that its waters are untainted, and there's enough refreshment for all.
See you tomorrow!