Review: ‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’ is a charming coming-of-age adventure story

Taika Waititi has been quietly building his body of work as a filmmaker with a distinctive comic voice and a deadpan absurdist shooting style. Eagle vs Shark was a sweet little romantic comedy with a real voice, and What We Do In The Shadows is a laugh-out-loud deflation of film vampires from every era. With his latest film, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Waititi really comes into focus as a filmmaker, and he”s got an exceptional sense of control over some tricky material.

It helps that Sam Neill gives one of his very best performances as Hec, a grizzled old man who lives on a remote farm with Bella (Rima Te Wiata, who was delightful in Housebound). When the foster care system brings them a 12-year-old boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison), Bella is able to forge a connection to him. It”s not easy, but once Ricky starts to get comfortable, this sweet vulnerable side comes out, and Dennison does terrific work playing Ricky honestly. The film is broken into chapters, and by the start of chapter two (out of ten), Waititi has already devastated the audience and pushed Hec and Ricky together as a very unlikely duo on a big adventure.

When the state informs Hec that they”re going to be taking Ricky back and sending him to juvenile prison until he”s 18, Hec and Ricky head into the outback together. This would make a fascinating double feature with Jurassic Park, as they both feature Sam Neill playing a grumpy adult who gradually warms to the kids in his care. Neill”s very funny in the film, but never at the sacrifice of the reality that Waititi is building. Thankfully, there”s a heightened sense of reality here, and there”s no point in the film where you are really worried about the ultimate fate of Hec or Ricky. This is a big-hearted movie, and Waititi makes buffoons of the pursuing parties. Rachel House plays Paula, the case worker who ends up heading the manhunt that lasts for months, and she”s an easy bad guy to hate. From her very first scene, she is clearly a cynical phony who thinks Ricky is beyond redemption.

When I was young, probably 12 or 13 years old, I went hunting with my father in the mountains around Chattanooga, TN. It was the only time I was really alone with him for any duration, and I took those trips seriously. It felt like I was being given a glimpse into the world of men, and my father had a number of friends who would join us on the trips, often with their sons. There were hunting lodges we would stay in as a group, but when we actually went out into the woods, we would break back into smaller groups, just father and son, and spend the entire day out there. On one particular trip, we had a long lazy day moving from one blind to another, and we ended up with nothing to show for it. When we decided to head back to where we”d left the car, it was already early afternoon. We spent at least an hour and a half trying to retrace our steps, only to realize we were profoundly lost. It was the first time it had ever happened to us, and as the sun crept towards the horizon, I felt myself panic. My father kept cool, though, and not only managed to eventually find a way to get us back to the road, but also managed to somehow get me to calm down again. It remains one of my defining memories of my father, because it was such a clear demonstration of how he handled himself under pressure. By the time we did finally find our car, it was dark, but instead of ending the day terrified, I felt safe as we drove home because I knew just how far my dad would go to keep me that way. By the conclusion of Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Ricky recognizes that in Hec. It's powerful and understated and enormously effective to see that relationship develop through so many tests.

While Hunt For The Wilderpeople is very funny, what makes it stick is the way Waititi allows the relationship between Hec and Ricky to develop slowly, and how nimbly he sets the emotional stakes for both of the characters. Shuffled from one family to another, Ricky is out of options. Bella and Hec represent his last stop in private homes before he gets sent to juvenile prison, and it would be so easy for this kid to be closed off, numb to potential by this point. Waititi never uses Ricky”s size or his physical awkwardness for a cheap gag. Instead, he makes Ricky this great sweet kid who is still able to believe in the chance that someone somewhere might want him, and I find that incredibly moving. Ricky has been through the system, but it hasn”t beaten him. Hec isn”t an easy person to warm up to, but Ricky and Hec are connected by the mutual love they had for Bella, and that seed is enough for a genuine sense of family to finally bloom between them.

The entire supporting cast is great, but I have to give special mention to Rhys Darby, who I think is generally hilarious, for his work as Psycho Sam, a conspiracy nut with a knack for pretending to be foliage. Waititi himself shows up for a memorable funeral scene, and he crushes it. Lachlan Milne”s photography is gorgeous, and the score by Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde never leans into the emotion in a maudlin way. When this film earns your tears… and it will… it does it honestly, and I suspect this is a film that people are going to share by word of mouth for years, one of those rare gems that will play equally well for viewers of any age.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople opens in limited release tomorrow.