SXSW Report: ‘The Hunt For The Wilderpeople’ Is A Charming Slice Of New Zealanderiness

Can we talk about how refreshing it is to see Kiwi actors starring in a Kiwi movie that’s actually shot and set in contemporary New Zealand? With all the movies shot in New Zealand (Avatar, Lord of the Rings, etc.) and/or starring Kiwi actors (Sam Neill, the Flight of the Conchords guys, Rhys Darby, Karl Urban, Cliff Curtis, Russell Crowe kind of…), it’s easy to forget how seldom we actually get to see Kiwis, in New Zealand, doing New Zealand stuff without it being a stand-in for a mythical kingdom. (“New Zealand stuff” includes, but is not limited to: sheep shearing, playing gin rummy, trading commemorative stubby holders, going on walks, taking a hay ride, muckin’ about with Dave…)

Director Taika Waititi, whose last movie, What We Do In The Shadows, was set in a fictionalized Wellington populated by vampires and werewolves (not swearwolves), goes even more contemporary in The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a sort of New Zealand pastoral interracial May-September buddy comedy starring the guy from Jurassic Park. Sam Neill is great as always, and 13-year-old Julian Dennison turns in a comedic performance more competent than most Hollywood pros (way better than Zac Efron, for example) as Ricky Baker, a delinquent foster kid who has been in trouble for “breaking stuff, stealing stuff, hitting stuff, kicking stuff, and setting stuff on fire,” among other things. (Or, “breeking stoff, stilling stoff, hutting stoff, and sitting stoff unfuyah,” in phonetic pinched Kiwi parlance.) Rucky Bakah gets sent to live with a new foster family out in the bush, where he eventually strikes up a friendship, or at least a mutual toleration, with a mountain man played by Neill.

From that point, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (based on the novel Wild Pork and Watercress, by Barry Crump) becomes a kind of Thelma and Louise story about a bushman, a chubby boy, and a dog named Tupac. By the way, watching a scene where an excited foster kid gets an adorable dog for his birthday is like someone putting a gun up to my tear ducts. Is there a lot of pollen in this auditorium? GRR, FOOTBALL!

It almost goes without saying that after St. Vincent, Gran Torino, and The Royal Tenenbaums, I’m a total sucker for stories about a curmudgeonly old man befriending a child outcast, and Wilderpeople is that narrative, refracted through a unique cultural lens. Ricky Baker pretends to be shooting English settlers when he practices his rifle, and after becoming a minor celebrity, a deep bush hermit makes Haka faces while taking selfies with him, telling Ricky “stay Maori, bru.”

Wilderpeople whiffs on a few swings (bowls a few wickets?), like a manhunt that goes on a bit too long and possibly the world’s first unspectacular Rhys Darby cameo. Not that he’s bad, he’s just a little too jokey in the context of a movie that’s otherwise funny, but also really touching and earnest. Nonetheless, Waititi has a gift of being able to crank Wilderpeople‘s sweet emotions right up to the edge of saccharine without ever turning schmaltzy. He also has the rare talent of being able to eke laughs out of not-overtly-comedic scenes through direction and editing alone. Not many people can do this – Bob Ray, Bobby Hacker, Lord and Miller in The LEGO Movie and the Jump Street movies – but you know it when you see it. Waititi seems to have evolved as both a director and a storyteller, getting more personal and narrative without losing any of his comedic edge. Where What We Do In The Shadows was funny, but also sort of an improv sketch piece that I could imagine enjoying more in serialized 30-minute chunks than as a 90-minute movie, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a true feature. And it hits on damn near every cylinder. More of this, please.

The Hunt For The Wilderpeople opens in New Zealand March 31st, but doesn’t have a US release date as of yet.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.