Monday, July 11, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Taika Waititi

Movies as delightful and unique as Hunt for the Wilderpeople are rarer than you might think. It may seem so simple: a young man comes of age while surviving in the woods with a crotchety old man. We've seen this story before, but it takes two talented actors and an equally spirited filmmaker to make it really work. New Zealand director Taika Waititi is up to the challenge. His feature films have all came out in this decade and this is already his third. In his native country, he's already directed the nation's highest grossing films, with his uncanny ability to blend off-the-wall humor and true poignancy. His previous film, What We Do In The Shadows (starring Waititi with Jemaine Clement), was a mockumentary about vampires, a quirky comedy that became a surprise modest hit in the US. Wilderpeople is his follow-up (and, I must admit, the first of his that I've actually seen), and it is a continuation of his gift for oddball comedy. The buddy film stares an unlikely pair: veteran actor Sam Neill and pre-teen New Zealander Julian Dennison, as an odd couple roughing it out in the woods after being sent on the run first by child services and then by the New Zealand government at large. If the premise feels absurd, it kind of is, but Waititi uses this to his advantage, infusing the film with the kind of energy it needs to keep up with the zany plot. But the film's biggest surprise perhaps is the uncanny chemisty between Neill and Dennison, a terrific pairing of grizzled experience and blunt naiveté, the two play off each other in such a funny, sweet way, it turns the film from run-of-the-mill to shockingly endearing. It really is the best comedy pairing I've seen so far this year, and likely to be for the rest of 2016.

Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a child miscreant who's incessant bad behavior has gotten him moved in and out of numerous foster homes throughout New Zealand. He loves rap music, worships gangsta culture, and sees every opportunity to create trouble for those around him. Paula (Rachel House), the social worker in charge of his case has run out of options, giving Ricky one last chance to prove he can stay in a proper home before shipping him off to juvenile detention. Bella (Rima Te Wiata), a golden-hearted woman living on a farm in the middle of the woods, is Ricky's last chance. Bella is married to Hector (Neill), a gruff, tight-lipped man who can't read and has little interest in being a father figure for some punk kid. But Ricky becomes Bella's project, and her warm, loving personality eventually wins Ricky over, and as he becomes more comfortable in his new home, he eventually endears himself to Hector. They even get Ricky a dog for his birthday (Ricky names it Tupac). But when Bella dies suddenly, child services decides that Hector can't raise Ricky on his own and that he must be taken back into government custody. This action leads to a chain of events which brings Ricky and Hector into the woods, and what starts as a mini-vacation turns into a full-blown manhunt as Paula zealously enlists the help of the local police to find Ricky, fearing that Hector - believing him unstable after Bella's death - may have kidnapped him. Life as outlaws comes naturally to the two of them, as Hector trains Ricky on life in the wilderness, and Ricky learns the truth about being brave and going up against nature. Along the way, they come across a group of hikers (Cohen Holloway, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue) looking to take advantage of a nice cash reward for Ricky's return, as well as a young girl (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) and her father (Troy Kingi) who house Ricky in a time of need. They also meet a man who's named himself Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) who wears tin pots as hats and straps bushes to his back to hide in the wild.

There's a huge debt owed to Wes Anderson here, in both the execution of dry comedy, the incorporation of music, and the ability to find sweetness within characters locked into tragic circumstances. We don't learn too much about Hector's past, but we can tell simply by Neill's excellent performance that there probably isn't a while lot in it that's good. As for Ricky, we're given the entire dossier on his history. Abandoned by young mother impregnated by an unknown father, Ricky has experienced the worst of what being a ward of the state has to offer. It's a wonder that his worst crime is mostly being a menace. Waititi has an affection for these two, much in the way Anderson finds a way to empathize with the lost, awkward souls that populate his films. Also like Anderson, Waititi's flair for style is on full display. Waititi is a true filmmaker. He values the impact of good editing and shot construction. He allows his screenplay and his characters to be supplemented by the way he places the images upon the screen. His scenes aren't strict dioramas like Anderson's, instead he cherishes movement and depth of field. While this is a performance-led film, Waititi doesn't allow the formalistic qualities of cinema go to waste. But this is a performance-led film, and the performances from Neill and Dennison are hilarious and exquisite. Neill, in his first major role in what seems like decades, gives what is probably the finest film performance of his career. The Jurassic Park star has hardly been called upon to bring this kind of gravitas to the screen, but in Wilderpeople he performs flawlessly, translating the characters anguish through so little dialogue. Thirteen-year-old Dennison is the film's star, though, with a titanically funny performance. The child has such a mature sense of comedic timing, and Waititi so keenly takes advantage of it. It's hard to know where the performance ends and the direction begins. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is simply delightful, a lighthearted film that tackles some very heavy concepts of friendship, mortality and bravery. If one can't appreciate the work done here, I can't imagine that person gets much pleasure out of anything.

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