New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows) latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a thoroughly likeable coming-of-age comedy drama, set in the wilds of the director’s home country, and starring Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker, a troubled kid who ends up in a new foster home with adoptive guardians Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec (Rima ti Wiata and Sam Neill).
It hasn’t been easy to find Ricky a home, as social worker Paula (Rachel House) is all too happy to remind Aunt Bella, but Ricky and his new aunt quickly form a restrained but very touching bond. That is, until a surprise incident throws Ricky and Uncle Hec together in the wilderness, where the two must learn to get along if they are to survive.
Ricky’s infectious enthusiasm and surprising good nature come out the more we see of him, brought to life by Dennison’s charming and very funny performance. Opposite him, Sam Neill does a good job playing the familiar ‘grumpy but softhearted’ role. In many ways Waititi’s film is reminiscent of countless other entries in the coming-of-age genre, though it stands out because of its wonderful sense of place, its fantastic sense of humour, and its witty script, which Waititi wrote himself. The director divides his film into chapters and plays with montage, giving the film a freewheeling sense of fun that is maintained even when the film flirts with more serious issues.
There are perhaps a few too many montages set to music, which threaten to saddle the film’s carefree nature with a sense of treading water, and one or two instances of contrived comedy, but in general I enjoyed the film’s consistent tone and revelled in its dry, and very funny, sense of humour. Just as the film is beginning to feel a tad overstretched, the excellent Rhys Darby turns up in a cameo role to thrust the film into its joyous and lovely final movement.
The film’s musical score and lush visuals complement the performances of the leads, lending the film a unique feel in a pretty busy genre. Ricky Baker is a memorable hero and the supporting cast bring laughs where we might not expect them. Waititi himself shows up in a brief cameo as a priest in a bizarre but entertaining scene.
It’s hard to imagine anybody not being won over by this charming adventure, which I’m alre ady looking forward to watching again. Waititi’s next film will be 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, and I’m very curious to see what he can bring to Marvel’s franchise universe.