What We Do in the Shadows was easily one of the most notable surprise breakout hits of the past few years. The low-budget indie horror comedy made such a huge splash that co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi was pretty much immediately signed onto the big leagues at Marvel, put in charge of capping one of their flagship trilogies with Thor: Ragnarok. What’s more, Waititi has reportedly been given the greenlight for a Shadows sequel/spinoff about the werewolf characters, cleverly titled We’re Wolves.
But first, we have Hunt for the Wilderpeople, another cheap and quickly-made indie film written and directed by Waititi, made in his native New Zealand. Expectations for Waititi’s next effort were sky-high, and he did not disappoint.
This is the story of Ricky Baker, an obese teenaged boy played by Julian Dennison. Ricky was a bastard child born to a teen mom and promptly put up for adoption. In the time since, he’s been bouncing around from one foster home to another, all the while acting like the very picture of a juvenile delinquent. At this point, the foster system only has one viable home left for Ricky before they give up and just stick him in juvie.
Enter “Auntie” Bella, played by Rima Te Wiata. She and her husband (“Uncle” Hector, played by Sam Neill) own a ranch out in the boondocks, and everyone figures that getting Ricky out of the city might be good for him. Of course Ricky doesn’t agree at first, in large part because there’s no one else around and he doesn’t like being separated from modern comforts. There’s also the matter of Hector, a recalcitrant old grump who wants nothing more than to be left alone, and Ricky is only too happy to oblige.
But while Bella comes off as an empty-headed twit at first, she’s got a surprisingly sharp wit that commands a great deal of respect. It also helps that she’s uniquely suited to life in the bushes, tough enough to disembowel a wild boar for dinner, but in a utilitarian way that doesn’t make her look like a monster. Perhaps most importantly, Bella has a unique knack for cutting right through people’s emotional barriers to kill them with kindness. Naturally, this is a huge part of why Hector and Ricky love her so much.
Bella is the very picture of someone who seems annoying at first, but leaves a strong impression once you get to know her. Major kudos to Te Wiata, who manages to convey all of that in the first twenty minutes. Before she gets killed off.
When Bella dies, Ricky’s living situation has to be reevaluated, which means that he has to be taken back to the city. And in all probability, sent to live in juvie. Hector is still mourning his wife, and he was never too keen on Ricky to begin with, so he’s not going to be much of any help. The upshot of all this is that Ricky takes matters into his own hands and runs away to live on his own in the forest. Hector follows after to look for him.
To make a long story short (too late!), Ricky and Hector take several weeks longer than expected getting back home. Within that time, the outside world has come to assume that Hector has abducted Ricky, most likely to abuse the child in some way. Things continue to escalate from there until Ricky and Hector become folk heroes, leading the New Zealand government on a nationwide manhunt for several months.
If you’ve seen What We Do in the Shadows, you already have a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of comedy. (And if you haven’t seen that movie, you should get on it, because it’s really good.) Waititi has a very distinct sense of humor, which mostly revolves around good-hearted people who ramble and bicker without any idea of how stupid they are. But while Shadows may have had some occasional elements of horror, it was very strongly a comedy before all else. Wilderpeople, on the other hand, has a trickier balancing act.
This is very much a coming-of-age story, portrayed in a way that demands a blend of comedy and drama. To say nothing of the occasional action scenes, like the nicely thrilling car chase in the climax. Waititi does a fantastic job of blending together all of these disparate elements, usually through the common factor of dunces who keep on blundering in further and further over their heads.
Of course, it certainly helps that the characters are all beautifully crafted. Ricky, for example, is notably obese, so of course that leads to a great deal of physical comedy. Yet Ricky has been immersed in different kinds of therapy for so long that he can leverage pseudo-intellectual lingo into acting like a total smartass. Moreover, precisely because Ricky has had such a difficult and traumatic childhood, there’s a lot of pathos to tap into for some good drama and character development. Young Julian Dennison proves himself to be a truly gifted new talent, playing every facet of the character with aplomb.
Naturally, it helps that Dennison is acting against a seasoned pro like Sam Neill. It takes a long time for the two characters to finally click, but when they finally bond over their love of the outdoors and their fear of going back to civilization, not to mention their shared knack for taking and dishing out verbal abuse, they work together beautifully. Neill and Dennison totally sell this relationship between two undereducated misfits with skills and passions that could never find a place in the outside world. There’s only ever been one other person who could possibly have understood and communicated with either of these two, and she’s dead.
It’s also worth pointing out that Ricky is a mere poser where Hector is the real thing. And I’m not just talking about how Hector is a real dyed-in-the-wool bushman while Ricky is only an apprentice who barely comprehends how much he doesn’t know. There’s also the fact that Hector has actually done time in prison for manslaughter. This naturally appeals to Ricky, who glamorizes the kind of faux-gangster lifestyle he’s seen in too many rap videos. Ricky wants to be an outlaw, he loves guns, and he dreams of going out in a blaze of glory. Which means that Hector has to be the one to hold him back, since he actually comprehends what those things really mean.
On the flip side of the coin, we have Paula (Rachel House). Here we have a CPS agent (or whatever the New Zealand equivalent of CPS is) who’s completely gotten carried away with the whole manhunt. Just as Ricky has cast himself as the badass fugitive, Paula has cast herself as the badass action hero. And they both take these roles to such ridiculous extremes that it results in a kind of feedback loop. This is a significant factor in how a minor misunderstanding eventually requires intervention from the goddamn National Guard (or whatever the Kiwi equivalent is).
Alas, the other supporting characters don’t fare nearly as well. A key example is Kahu, played by… *deep breath* Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne. She’s an interesting character and the young actress showed a lot of potential, but Kahu is woefully underutilized. Especially considering that she’s introduced as a possible love interest for Ricky and absolutely nothing is done with that angle. Likewise, Oscar Kightley and Rhys Darby each put in a few very funny scenes, just enough that it’s hard to tell whether the film needed to get rid of them entirely or give them more to do. But the booby prizes go to Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, and Cohen Holloway, all of whom completely fail to register as a trio of hunters.
Easily the greatest supporting actor in this whole film is New Zealand itself. The movie works as a dazzling showcase for the natural beauty of New Zealand, with fantastic camerawork and editing to take us through so many different kinds of terrain while showing the passage of several months. Credit is also due to the animal trainers and the VFX team, who serve to populate the movie with various kinds of fauna in a way that makes the setting even more vibrant. New Zealand hasn’t looked this good since The Lord of the Rings, which of course gets a shout-out in this picture.
Overall, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very good movie. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s creative, it’s quirky, and it’s anti-authoritarian without being self-righteous. The unknown talents are delightful, the established talents are rock-solid, and the New Zealand scenery is incredible.
Taika Waititi has proven himself to be a remarkable filmmaker, working with a mere $18 million budget (that’s in U.S. dollars) to make something that effectively balances action and comedy and coming-of-age drama. The man is going to be a Hollywood powerhouse if the PTB are ever willing to get out of his way and let the man hit his stride. In the meantime, definitely give this one a look.