The delightful, wonderful Hunt for the Wilderpeople

SPOILERS. THEY’RE EARLY ON AND FUNDAMENTAL TO THE WHOLE STORY, BUT THEY’RE SPOILERS IF YOU’RE SENSITIVE.

The very New Zealand-based director Taika Waititi is the most exciting young director working right now, at least for my money and my blood and whatever other collateral I can put down that apparently reinforces my opinion. He’s assembled a little collection of smart, impossibly sweet yet not too sentimental, masterfully made pictures that are unabashed in their love for the weirdoes that populate their frames. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is simply one of the best encapsulations of that skill and that attitude.

Based on the Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress, it’s the story of young Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a “gangsta” young boy who’s been in and out of countless foster homes. He’s sent to the country to live an older couple, Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Aunt Bella quickly takes Ricky into her home, but Uncle Hec is decidedly more resistant to letting the boy in.

Which makes it all the more difficult when Bella suddenly passes away, leaving Ricky’s home with Uncle Hec in jeopardy. Which is fine by Hec, until Ricky runs off into the Bush before Child Services can arrive, which eventually spirals into a nationwide manhunt since they believe that Hec kidnapped Ricky.

It’s a good old-fashioned “us-against-the-world” adventure story that marks Waititi’s return to more traditional narrative film, after his shockingly successful (and delightful) mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. In a slightly less literal way than that last traditional narrative, Boy, this one wears its 80s influence on its sleeve, for all its wonder and synths feeling like a lost film of the Stephen Spielberg-produced family film canon.

Perhaps its greatest charm is that family film feeling. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t feel made just for Waititi’s sake, but rather to be shared with everyone. On every level, there’s something to enjoy about this film, something you can take away as entertainment and as message. It’s a film for kids that has rollicking good times and a message about growing up and trusting others. For adults, there’s all that, but there’s also a touching poignancy to much of what happens and a story about loss and moving on.

Though as much as it’s in the text of the film, the seeming universality of this one is also just thanks to the sureness of Waititi’s directorial hand.  Nothing gets an idea across quite like someone being able to clearly convey it to you and to keep you engaged, and that’s what Waititi’s best at. He draws you into these weird, singular worlds and helps you to understand it the way he does, with the love that he has, and never in a way that even the most uncharitable observer could call dull.

Waititi’s style could be best described as Wes Anderson without the melancholic artifice or Edgar Wright with the volume turned down. Every image is composed within an inch of its life and the camera is always gently moving through or snapping to the next necessary point. There’s a sense of excited explanation, that the camera is just showing you something he finds amazing and the eye is showing you what’s so great about it. Whether that’s the action on screen or the country that he lives in, his camera brings you inside the world.

Of course, it isn’t just on Waititi, though I’m gonna give him one last bit of praise, because it’s a great segue. Waititi also just knows how to make a relentlessly charming set of characters every time. He specializes in loveable weirdoes, not quirky, but just people who don’t seem to know any other way.

It also helps that he gets solid casts and this one is no exception. Person by person, everyone is great, but I want to give a particular shout-out to the two leads Julian Dennison and Sam Neill. Julian Dennison plays Ricky, and he does a PHENOMENAL job for what is only his third role ever. He makes Ricky’s energy seem fun rather than annoying and he’s all too natural in a role where a lot of child actors could easily be cloying.

And Sam Neill’s just great. Didn’t even know he was a Kiwi until this movie (exposing a bit of a blind spot in my film viewing I’m sure), but he does the rugged mountain man thing so well, and again, he plays a part that could be thin or closed-off in a way that actually makes him feel relatable and loveable.

It’s hard to say too much other than I love this film. It’s sweet and well-made and charming. It’s the kind of film that had me and my companion walking out in just the best damned mood. It’s a film everyone can see and I think is worth everyone checking out, even if only to see the immense skill on behalf of the dude who’s gonna be directing Thor 3.

GRADE: A

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