You might not yet know the name Taika Waititi, but you soon will. The New Zealand-born triple threat has been on the verge of breaking through for years, first as Ryan Reynolds’ best friend in “Green Lantern,” and then as the c0-star, co-writer and co-director of the side-splitting vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows.” Next year, he’ll helm Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” but before then he’s created one of the best coming-of-age comedies of the past decade.
Based on Barry Crump’s novel “Wild Pork and Watercress,” “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” follows chubby wannabe gangster Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a 13-year-old Maori foster kid who’s been written off as a “bad egg” by his social worker Paula (Rachel House). Taken in by kindhearted farmer Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff husband Hec (Sam Neill), Ricky is given a fresh start in a rural landscape just outside the thick wilderness of the bush. It doesn’t take long for the street-smart kid to warm to Bella and her zeal for life. But when one misfortune dominoes into another and another, Ricky and Hec end up on the lam in the bush, sparking a national manhunt led by the power-hungry Paula.
Waititi’s script dares to make both Ricky and Hec initially off-putting. The former is introduced with a jaunty montage of his delinquent behavior, ranging from graffiti to smashing up mailboxes to loitering. When introduced to Bella and his new home, Ricky expresses disdain, sneeringly entreating to be taken back to the city. Hec stomps onto screen with a slain wild boar over his back, and is quick to tell Ricky not to get too cozy by calling him “Uncle Hec.” It’s Bella who brings us in with a smile and a song (a catchy, quirky one that will stick in your head for days), winning us over as she does Ricky. She shows us what there is to love in both of her rough-around-the-edges men, hooking us ahead of their big journey.
You couldn’t ask for a more eccentric or entertaining odd couple than Ricky and Hec. There’s a strange alchemy in their chemistry that combines Hec’s curmudgeonly attitude and Ricky’s juvenile hubris into comedy gold. A product of the streets and much attention from child services, Ricky speaks with a mix of psychobabble and slang, urging Hec to “process his feelings” and warning adversaries “Shit just got real!” Meanwhile, Hec isn’t much for talking, but Neil’s flabbergasted expressions as Dennison dances about with an imaginary Walkman (constructed from vines and twigs) speaks volumes. Naturally, their friction sparks a friendship that helps Hec learn to process his feelings, and Ricky to realize that the world might allow him more than the “bad egg” destiny promised by Paula.
In the middle of heavy themes about rejection, social prejudice and even death, “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” keeps things light. With a scruffy whimsy and homespun sweetness, it folds in a hallucinated talking hamburger, a reclusive kook who dresses like shrubbery, and Ricky’s social worker taunting him with smack talk like, “I’m like the Terminator … you’re more like Sarah Connor, and in the first movie too, before she did chin-ups!”
Waititi’s cast, which includes his recurring collaborator/scene-stealer Rhys Darby, is positively sensational, nailing the script’s quirky but never cruel brand of comedy. As the stakes get deliciously outlandish, the performances grow campier, complete with a bombastic finale that is exactly the “blaze of glory” a kid like Ricky — with an overactive imagination and a lust for danger — dreams of. It’s “Goonies” for 2016.
In “Hunt For the Wildpeople” Waititi pitches us into the brush, fish out of water much like Ricky. With this misunderstood “bad egg,” we get to experience the discoveries of this incredible landscape as he learns to hunt, forage and survive without modern luxuries like sausages and toilet paper. Fueled by a surreal soundtrack that blends reggae, blues, pop and gospel, “Hunt For the Wildpeople” delivers a wacky and heartwarming adventure that will have you roaring with laughter and aching to revisit. Full of character and comedy, it’s easily one of the best films of the year.
“Hunt For the Wilderpeople” premiered Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival. A theatrical release will follow this summer.
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