Since his first feature in 2007, writer, director and actor Taika Waititi has operated on a few different levels. In his native country of New Zealand, at this point, he’s a bit of a star with a string of local hits. In North America, his popularity is only starting. I saw his feature debut, Eagle vs. Shark, at the same time I started watching its star Jemaine Clement on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords. Waititi’s quirky style was evident, just as it was in the few episodes he did on the hilarious television series. It was in 2014 that he hit a sort of cult status, again teaming with Clement for the mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. The film got rave reviews and put the filmmaker on the radar of a big studio that will surely change everything.
That studio is Marvel, who has employed Taika Waititi as the man to bring the third Thor film to the big screen with Ragnarok. After that, the director will be seen on a whole other level, much like the Russo Brothers have experienced. It’s kind of like the New Zealand version of James Gunn, who had a core of fans that were a bit removed from the mainstream audience. Before all the big budget attitude of going to Asgard with Marvel, Waititi has another project to fire off, the fourth feature in his career, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, a film that is already doing very well back home for him.
The film is about Ricky Baker, a portly and defiant city boy who thinks of himself as a gangster in training but in reality, is a foster kid without any options or direction. At the beginning of the story we see him dropped off at this new foster home with Bella and Hec, his new guardians. Ricky is withdrawn and leads with a tough exterior but he soon softens to Bella and her sweet way of dealing with him. Hec (played by Sam Neill), on the other hand, is cantankerous and grumpy, refusing to give Ricky any time of his day. This becomes more problematic when Bella tragically dies one day leaving Ricky and Hec on their own.
Shortly after Bella’s funeral, Hec receives a letter from Child Services stating that without the involvement of Bella, their residence is unsuitable to raise a child, let alone a troubled kid like Ricky. Upon learning this, Ricky makes a drastic decision and makes his escape into the bush. Being a master bushman himself, Hec heads into the bush as well to track down his unwanted foster son and ends up getting injured once they reconnect. Because of the time it takes for Hec to heal, the outside world starts to look at his and Ricky’s situation as a kidnapping, which puts the authorities hot on their trail as the two start heading deeper and deeper into the vast forest of New Zealand.
This film completely won me over on all levels, especially with its sweet-heartedness. Newcomer Julian Dennison makes us really root for Ricky’s character once he actually speaks about ten minutes into the film. The relationship between him and Bella becomes so quickly close after such a standoffish beginning that it is a truly sad scene when she passes away. It felt like the one ally that Ricky had in this world was snuffed out, along with his last remaining avenue of a good and worthwhile life. This also serves to make the obtuseness of Hec and Ricky’s relationship that much more interesting, as we now just want to see some happiness result from the pairing of this gruff man of the land and a cocky and naive street kid.
Every frame of this film is gorgeous, as Waititi knows how to take command of the vast greenery of his country. Working with cinematographer Lachlan Milne closely, he makes every shot of this film busy with a depth that most feature films seem to forget about. He also employs some of the best new film technology available with some breathtaking drone shots that sweep through the sky above the mountain rivers as our characters navigate the landscape. It gives the adventurous feel in imagery that the story already commands through its story and script and makes you feel immersed in the journey.
I also loved the styling of the editing featuring some of the brightest editors working today. Tom Eagle had worked with Waititi previously on What We Do In The Shadows but had also worked on Ash Vs. The Evil Dead; Yana Gorskaya has some great indie films and documentaries under her belt; and Luke Haigh did one of my favorite films last year, Turbo Kid. Together this team makes Hunt For The Wilderpeople have that kinetic storytelling that Taika Waititi is going for; just another piece of the intricate cast and crew puzzle that makes this film one of my favorites this year.
As much as all the obvious things work in this film, what is subtly brilliant about the whole thing are the small moments and continued jokes throughout. There a funny reoccurrence with every character, aside from Hec, trying to tell a joke which falls horribly flat every time but hitting the audience well with every single one. It adds to the un-comfortability and distance between each character as they strive to get closer to one another. Hunt For The Wilderpeople is an absolute must see for everyone and a film I could see getting around just by word of mouth, much like how What We Do In The Shadows found its popularity. I loved this film immensely and would be hard pressed to not give it a perfect score. I reiterate, this is a five out of five.