Writer-director (and occasional actor) Taika Waititi has made himself a nice little niche in the last ten years, creating New Zealand-centric films with universal appeal. Usually honing in on characters considered as outcasts or different from the “norm”, his humour is typically dry, in a very New Zealand way. Waititi’s first feature film, 2007’s Eagle vs Shark, saw him team up with long-term collaborator Jemaine Clement to make a very offbeat and sweet indie comedy. Over the next few years came Boy and What We Do In The Shadows, two very different films that both had New Zealand at their heart.
2010’s Boy, thematically probably the closest of Waititi’s films to his latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, saw Waititi play a deadbeat father, returning home after his time in prison to try and find money that he’s buried in a field, while also attempting to make some kind of connection with his young sons. Both Boy and Wilderpeople focus on kids from troubled backgrounds with just their imaginations keeping them on the right track. In Boy, the main character imagines his father is Thriller-era Michael Jackson. In Wilderpeople, Ricky (Julian Dennison) believes Tupac is his best friend and that he’s pretty gangster for a kid (skuxx life, bro). But Ricky’s life of causing trouble in big towns quickly changes, as he arrives at the home of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), way out in the sticks. Dressed in garish, oversized hoodies and described by his social worker as “a real bad egg”, Ricky has been passed between foster homes for as long as he can remember. This is his last chance to settle into family life and learn to behave himself; if he messes this up he’s straight off to a juvenile detention centre.
Bella and Hec’s home is brand-new terrain for Ricky, whose attempts to run away are thwarted by both his laziness and the fact that they are surrounded by thousands of hectares of bush. Hec is not a welcoming man, pushing Ricky away and refusing to acknowledge him. Soon though, things begin to settle for Ricky. The food is plentiful – a sure way into his heart – and Bella is a caring and attentive foster mother, always leaving him a hot water bottle in bed and involving him in her many (slightly odd) daily activities. But things are sometimes not meant to be, and Ricky is once again thrown into the unknown. Suddenly, he finds himself on the run with Hec in the seemingly never-ending bush. This is where the strength of the film lies: the bond between Ricky and Hec. They are complete opposites in terms of their personalities and outlooks, but both are outcasts taken in and accepted by the same kind-hearted woman. They both crave a family, and though this is a buddy movie, it is also a love story. There’s the love between Hec and his wife Bella, there’s the love Ricky learns to feel for both of his foster parents, and there are lost loves too for both of the main characters.
Where Julian Dennison brings a fresh, excitable energy to the film, Sam Neill brings an authoritative grounding. Always a safe pair of hands, Neill seemingly relishes playing the grumpy, put-upon old guy. His performance is mesmerising, and you can’t help but relate to him the most as he gets pushed further into increasingly bizarre situations. Most importantly though, he is very funny, and he and Dennison bounce very well off one another. While you obviously sympathise with the character of Ricky and his desperation to find a home and be accepted, you ultimately want the very same outcome for Hec. He has never felt accepted, so has instead pushed everyone away, except for his beloved Bella.
As with all of Waititi’s films, the supporting cast play just as important a role as the leads. There’s a core group of New Zealand actors who appear throughout most of his films in various guises, and Wilderpeople is no exception. There’s Waititi regular Rachel House as deluded child welfare agent Paula, doggedly hunting Ricky through the bush with sheer, blinded determination (“I’m relentless; I’m like the Terminator”). Then there’s the completely nutty, wonderfully eccentric supporting role for Rhys Darby, as manic bushman Psycho Sam. This is probably the dream role for Darby, who undeniably puts his all into the frantic, delirious character.
Waititi seems to specialise in writing slightly odd, awkward characters that are actually very relatable. Just take a look at the vampires in What We Do in the Shadows. I never thought I’d care about the lost love of a 300-year-old vampire, but by the end of the film I wanted nothing more than to see him happy and reunited with his love. With Wilderpeople, Hec could have easily just been the grumpy old man that slowly learns to love his foster child, but instead you watch him go through emotional turmoil and loss, and the story is all the stronger for it.
Naturally, as the film goes on, Hec mellows and Ricky learns to not only love, but allow himself to feel loved. It’s far too corny to say that this film will make you laugh and cry, but… it will make you laugh and cry, then laugh again. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a comedy with real emotional depth alongside downright silliness, something that’s not easily found these days. If you don’t have to hold back the tears at least once during the film then bravo, you must have a heart of stone. Every character is superb, there’s zero filler and each joke manages to hit the mark. To say the film is brilliant really isn’t high enough praise. It’s simply majestical.
So to recap, here’s our 20 to 2 of 2016…
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2016
20 – The Witch
19 = Son of Saul
19 = The Hateful Eight
18 – Midnight Special
17 – American Honey
16 = Embrace of the Serpent
16 = Captain America: Civil War
15 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
14 – Creed
13 – Hail, Caesar!
12 – The Revenant
11 – Weiner
10 – Everybody Wants Some!!
9 – Zootropolis
8 – Anomalisa
7 – Paterson
6 – The Neon Demon
5 – The Nice Guys
4 – Room
3 – Spotlight
2 – Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Stay tuned for tomorrow, we reveal our No. 1 film of 2016!