If you find Wes Anderson a touch too twee for your tastes, and can’t quite understand the hype around the likes of Grand Budapest Hotel, then this is the film for you.
Taika Waititi has been earning plaudits for years now, but this is probably the last film of his you’ll see for a while that has the bristling independent energy and deadpan humour he is famed for. His next film will be the small matter of Thor: Ragnarok, which will no doubt be a smash hit, but probably lack the hilarity of his earlier work.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled youth who has been in and out of foster homes for years. His misdemeanors are minor, but an earnest social services officer (Rachel House) is intent on putting the 15-year-old firmly on the straight and narrow.
Ricky ends up in the care of Bella Faulkner (Rima Te Wiata), a kind stranger who actually makes the boy feel at home for the first time in his life. Bella lives with her husband, Hector (Sam Neill), who is the archetypal bush man and the rural setting of their home is perfect.
When tragedy strikes, Hector is faced with the prospect of giving up Ricky back to the authorities, but instead the pair go on the run in the outback. Through a series of actions, the national manhunt that ensues actually creates two celebrities. The pair evade capture through cunning and their bond grows strong despite a shaky start.
Just how long can they keep this unlikely dream alive?
It would be a mistake to call this film slight, despite its seemingly basic set up. There is a real heart that you only get with a wonderful development of the characters. Neill plays the gruff and apparently uncaring old loner to great effect. In an early scene we see him lose all the macho posturing and breakdown completely. It’s a beautifully heartbreaking moment and gives you an insight into the loss someone can feel when they lose their partner.
Neill is of course a veteran in the business, but youngster Julian Dennison more than holds his own.
We initially see a brooding, moody teenager who seems like he belongs in the city. The stories of Ricky’s errant ways are hilariously cut with him actually just being a lonely kid trying to have some fun. We warm to Baker very quickly and we feel for him too when he fears his new home is about to be ripped away from him.
There are some great scenes where the mismatched pair go on the run and try their best not to kill one another. Hector, who is constantly called “Uncle” in the film, is a wanted man. The assumptions of just what a man in his sixties is doing with a boy in the woods are apparent, but these are left to the over active imaginations of a handful of bounty hunters.
The relationship is pure and sweet. Ricky and Hector need one another and both a grieving. The rural setting of the Kiwi Bush is a perfect backdrop and director Taika Waititi drops in some superb gags timed perfectly with his choice of sublime music. Who else would think of using the classic 80’s advert for Flake chocolates as the launch pad for a fantasy sequence?
The real triumph is in how the jokes are kept universally appealing, just as we have seen in Waititi’s earlier work from Flight of the Conchords through to What We Do in the Shadows.
There is a whiff of Moonrise Kingdom at times to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but this avoids all the pitfalls of Anderson’s work. This feels real even though it is a fantasy of sorts and you care for each and every one of the characters.