New Zealand filmmaking has always had a bit of a cult following amongst discerning Aussie film buffs, with our neighbouring nation making a pleasant habit of crafting small films with lots of heart. Recently their comedies in particular have shown the value of playing to your strengths and caring about your characters. Actor/director, Taika Waititi, is at the forefront of this talent wave from across the ditch. He made 2010’s moving and insightful Boy, and also came up with 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows, a modern classic comedy about a vampires share house.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople actually has several elements of Waititi’s previous work. The idea of absent parents (especially fathers), of lost teenage kids, and the value of connecting to the young, are all here. As the director puts it, this is a story where “old meets new, age meets youth, bush meets city, Pakeha meets Maori, and wisdom meets instinct.”
The lead is Ricky Baker (a promising performance from young actor, Julian Dennison). He is a slightly overweight orphaned 13-year-old looking for a family. Ricky, we are told by his fatuous social worker, Paula (Rachel House relishing her role), is a pretty bad egg. His “crimes”? Well, where do you start? “Kicking stuff, breaking stuff, graffiti.” The list goes on. Being a city boy, Ricky gets a culture shock when he is adopted by a couple – Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) – who live in a remote part of the South Island. Things go plausibly, but absurdly, wrong, and pretty soon Ricky and Hec find themselves on the run. Ricky helpfully offers the idea that their trek is like that of the Wildebeest across the Serengeti. “Except we are like Wilderpeople,” he adds.
Sam Neill (getting in touch with his Kiwi roots perhaps) is always such a natural. You feel that he can play anything. He’s typically good in this. The arc of his character – from gruff embittered oldie to staunch ally of the hapless Ricky – is predictable in one sense, but pitch perfect in another. This really is a very winning comedy. If you are looking for a skillful combination of storytelling and charming silliness, go and see it.