The relationship that grows between Sam Neill’s Uncle Hec and Julian Dennison’s Ricky over the course of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a thing of beauty.
It’s not spoon-fed, it’s not forced, it just feels natural. Which is quite fitting for a film where the idea of getting back to basics is so central. Both Neill and Dennison are outstanding here – Dennison impresses in particular with a remarkably accomplished and nuanced turn. There’s much more to Ricky than the thug life-lite, wannabe gangster that he’s introduced as being.
Life so far has been tough for young Ricky. He’s been shifted around foster homes, unable to settle, all the while developing a bit of a reputation for mischief. The hard crimes too: spitting, throwing rocks, kicking stuff. This time around he finds himself sent to the New Zealand countryside (which hasn’t looked this glorious since Lord of the Rings). His new parents are the wonderfully caring, and wonderfully jumpered Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), and the detached, grumpy Uncle Hec.
It’s the little moments shared among the trio that make their bonds all the more believable, and their fates all the more worth caring about. Be it Ricky’s suggestion to Hec that he should get a second dog called Zig to accompany his current pooch, Zag, or Aunt Bella asking Ricky if he’ll be running away whilst tucking him into bed, and then collecting him when he fails miserably with his attempted escape, it’s layered with touches of charm, eccentricity, wit and warmth. If you’ve seen any of writer/director Taika Waititi’s previous efforts (What We Do in the Shadows, Eagle vs Shark) you’ll know what kind of humour to expect. Here though, quirkiness and heart are balanced even better than he’s ever managed before.
Because as funny as it is (i.e. very), it’s equally as touching. Ricky has had loss throughout his childhood: a close friend, the mother who gave him up. Hec is a man whose life seems full of regret. But it’s their joint loss which pushes the film on down the path less travelled, that brings the pair together, and sends them on the run into the bush, away from the maniacal social services worker Paula (Rachel House), who takes her “No Child Left Behind” mantra a tad too seriously. It swings wildly between emotional extremes, from soaring highs, to crushing lows, often jumbling both together in the space of a single shot.
But there’s no time to linger on the hardships, nor the better times, because rather than allowing itself to do so, the film instead prefers to take the unexpected route. We go from a quiet, lighthearted look at a troubled child, to bonkers, borderline slapstick shenanigans from Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords), before rounding off with an exhilarating, action-packed chase. And no matter which guise it takes, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is ever fantastic. It cherry-picks the best parts of Taika Waititi’s repertoire and forms them into one heck of a movie.
Quite simply, the best film of 2016 so far.
Rating (out of 5):