After the high-concept vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and before the even higher concept Thor: Ragnarok, writer and director Taika Waititi returns to a kind of storytelling that earned him critical and audience acclaim in 2010’s Boy. Based on the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE sees troubled young Ricky (Julian Dennison) wind up in the foster care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her curmudgeonly husband Hec (Sam Neill). When tragedy strikes, Ricky runs into the nearby bushland to hide from child services, with Hec chasing after him. When authorities find their house abandoned and burned, they assume Hec has gone mad and kidnapped the boy, with a national manhunt the only logical reaction.
Rapidly becoming the Antipodean Wes Anderson, Waititi’s script is a wonderful mixture of deadpan, surrealism, impromptu ditties, and genuine heart. While a cast of irregulars appears at pointed chapter junctures throughout the film, including the obligatory Rhys Darby and Waititi himself in a memorable cameo as a priest, the majority of the plot concentrates on Dennison and Neil inhabiting the bush together. Amidst “about a million hectares” of the beautifully shot Kiwi landscapes, it’s this bonding that’s at the core of the film. Where similar narratives might choose cloying sentimentalism, Waititi builds from a gentle series of encounters (prompting gem lines like “It was a relaxing song. And a relaxing sausage”), through the hysteria of the “no child left behind” social worker, leading to an escalated climax that’s a cross between The Blues Brothers and Thelma and Louise. Dennison, in his third feature role, is perfect as a kid addicted to his own fantasy version of “the thug life,” and a wonderful foil for the grumpy Neill. From subtle film references to more overt ones, THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is a laugh-out-loud romp from start to finish.
2016 | New Zealand | DIR: Taika Waititi | WRITERS: Taika Waititi | CAST: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison | DISTRIBUTOR: Madman (Australia) | RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes | RATING:★★★★ (8/10)