“Uncle, you’re basically a criminal now. But on the bright side, you’re famous.”
When mainstream cinema is flagging one of the best places to look for interesting and creative alternatives is New Zealand. Historically not the biggest world cinema (it wasn’t until the 1970’s that they really caught up with the rest of the world) NZ cinema nevertheless always seems to entertain and remain distinctively unique. The latest big hit out of the land of the long white cloud is Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and it’s very good. In fact it’s the best film of 2016 so far.
The film follows young orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) as he is brought to his new foster parents ‘Aunt’ Bella and ‘Uncle’ Hec (Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill) by nasty child welfare worker Paula (Rachel House). Ricky is quick to hate his new home but he quickly comes around to liking it, especially the quirky Bella. But after tragedy strikes Ricky is left with the very prickly Hector who tells him the child welfare service are coming to take him back. Ricky runs away into the bush, with Hec not far behind, leading to a nation wide manhunt for the both of them. Directed by the brilliant Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is definitely a unique film; it’s part absurdist comedy, part coming of age film, and part Midnight Run style buddy comedy. It’s humour sort of runs in a similar vein to Watiti’s last hit, the vampire skewing What We Do In The Shadows, but it’s also completely different. The film is indescribable in the best possible way and that’s a big part of it’s charm. The script is absolutely fantastic, no doubt the very best work of a man whose career is full of brilliant work. Waititi’s signature offbeat comedy is present throughout and the film is never not funny. Even the best comedies both hit and miss to some degree but Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those rare films where everything hits. Even in the darker scenes Waititi manages to sneak in a laugh; such as the the very funny sermon given by an eccentric priest (played by Waititi) at a funeral where in moments earlier there was gut wrenching sadness.
At the heart of the film are two very different but both equally excellent performances. At one end of the spectrum you have veteran actor (and vintner) Sam Neill playing Hector, a gruff seemingly stereotypically ‘bushman’ (right down to him being called ‘Crocodile Dundee’ at one point) who pretends to want nothing to do with Ricky but beneath the prickly exterior is all heart. Neill is good in everything, even the most terrible movies, so it’s no surprise that he is brilliant as grouchy Uncle Hec. It’s a character born straight out of conventions of New Zealand cinema but the brilliance of Neill’s performance – and the exceptional script – means he’s more than a NZ stereotype, and he plays off of naive city kid Ricky wonderfully. And Julian Dennison as Ricky is a revelation; it’s the best performance by a child actor all year. Dennison seems to be naturally gifted when it comes to comedy of all types. Not only is he brilliant at the comedic bits (him watching Aunt Bella kill a pig, relaying his sickness and horror purely through facial expressions might be the funniest thing all year) he also handles the sad moments extremely well too. His interacting with Sam Neill’s Hec makes up the heart of the film, but Waititi never rests upon sentimentality – meaning their relationship feels more real than other ‘odd couple’ movies. The other cast members are all great (Waititi’s cameo as the strange vicar and Rhys Darby as unhinged but friendly hermit Psycho Sam raised massive laughs) but a particular highlight is Ricky’s designated child welfare worker Paula, played by Rachel House. Her wannabe cop antics are consistently hilarious as is her frequent berating of local dim witted police office Andy, played by Oscar Kightly.
Waititi’s direction is frequently stunning too, showcasing all the best views New Zealnd has to offer. There are callbacks to other NZ films too; early scenes on Hec’s farm bare more than a passing resemblance to Vincent Ward’s Vigil. Comedies often suffer in the directing department due to the misplaced assumption that interesting and thoughtful direction aren’t as important as they are in other, more ‘prestigious’ film genres but Hunt for the Wilderpeople has wonderful direction. The physical comedy is executed brilliantly and the actors are given time to perform the hilarious script all the while being framed in some of the most pituresque shots of New Zealand this side of Lord of the Rings. The action at the climax of the film is also brilliantly directed, being both very clearly laid out and easy to follow while also still being hilarious. With a director as talented as this it seems the upcoming Thor 3 is in very good hands.
The bottom line: Hunt for the Wilderpeople is definitely the best comedy film of the year and more than likely, the best film of the year. Bolstered by outstanding performances by both new actors and old, and a lightning quick script with the best joke to minute ratio since Airplane, it’s got future classic written all over it. These sort of films can slip under the radar of most people but I feel this one will have a following for a long time. Funny, heartwarming, truly poignant, and as Hec would say; majestical, Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t to be missed.