Taika Waititi is going to be a superstar someday. After watching his latest film, the New Zealand-set comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I'm almost certain of this. Waititi is going on to make Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok next, but if he doesn't go too deep into the blockbuster realm, he could end up being mentioned in the same breath as Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers. Because while he clearly takes cues from those two beloved directors, Waititi has a spectacular flair of his own. He's a quirky filmmaker with an enormous heart and a great eye for character, something that is all too rare in the current cinematic landscape. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a breathtakingly charming comedy, an engaging character study, and a thrilling adventure movie. Weird, lovable, and "majestical" in equal measure, this little gem finds a unique directorial voice firing on all cylinders.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a "real bad egg." According to the controlling and slightly insane Child Services officer Paula (Rachel House), Ricky is prone to kicking stuff, spitting, stealing stuff, graffiti, and even more things that they don't know about. After several years in foster care, Ricky has nowhere left to go. Only one person wants him- Bella (Rima Te Wiata), a sweet old woman who sees a bit of herself in Ricky. Along with her curmudgeonly husband, Hec (Sam Neill), Bella takes Ricky in and raises him in their home. Despite Ricky's initial hesitation, he eventually warms to the old couple and they start to feel like real parents to him. He's never had a home like this and he loves it.
But as with seemingly all things, the good time in Ricky's life comes to an end. Tragedy strikes, which causes Child Services to pen a letter requesting that Ricky return to their custody. Not wanting to leave the place that he calls home, Ricky runs off into the wilderness of New Zealand, commonly known as "The Bush." After a couple of days spent alone, the young boy is starving, lost, and completely unprepared for his new life in the woods. But just as he starts to go delirious, Hec bumps into him. Turns out, they're both fugitives from the law, with Paula and the entire country on the lookout for the two of them (it's a suspected kidnapping case). After some persuading, Ricky and Hec go on an adventure together, learning to love each other every step of the way.
It's easy to imitate another filmmaker's style. It's not all that hard to make something that looks like a Tarantino or Spielberg movie. On the other hand, it is incredibly difficult to take a definitive style and make it your own, which is what makes Waititi's achievement with Hunt for the Wilderpeople all the more remarkable. From the opening moments, it's clear that Waititi takes a certain level of inspiration from the films of Wes Anderson and even Tarantino. From the flashy zoom-ins, to the chapter set-up, to the deadpan humor, this film shares some DNA with classics like Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. And yet, while I was watching the film, I never felt like "Oh, this is just a Wes Anderson rip-off." With Wilderpeople, Waititi expands the Anderson style, bringing an extra layer of charm, warmth, and character that gives it a distinct feeling of its own. All of the great directors take inspiration from the best. It's that extra layer that separates the hacks from the artists.
Waititi's a smart, precise filmmaker, but there's no question that Julian Dennison and Sam Neill add another perfect element to Wilderpeople. Dennison, a relative newcomer, is a total revelation. He has a level of charisma unparalleled by most young actors, and most importantly, he seems to have a deep insight into his character. There's a funny touch to Dennison's performance, highlighted by his exceptional delivery of Waititi's dialogue. He's paired perfectly with Sam Neill, who does great work as the gruff and somewhat unpleasant father figure. Hec's arc over the course of the film is dynamic and sweet, and I loved where these two characters ended up at the end of the film. Neill delivers an incredible performance and he has strong chemistry with his breakout co-star.
Beyond even the top-notch performances and the filmmaking imagination, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a strong film across the board. Waititi's script is both perceptive and profound, uproariously funny while never discarding the emotional core of the story. The musical choices are clever and delightful, giving the film a poppy, likable beat of its own. The visual look is earthy and detailed, which brings the lush setting to vivid life. And most of all, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a reminder of how far a great story and great characters can take you. Despite all of the extra touches that elevate it to another level, the success of this film lies with its big heart.
In a summer riddled with less-than-savory blockbusters (with a few notable exceptions), salvation is once again found at the arthouse theater. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is sharp, lovable, and beautiful, with two characters that I'll certainly remember for a long time. Taika Waititi brings so much sincerity and humanity to this story, and the fact that it's often hilarious is only icing on the cake. As good as Wilderpeople is, this only feels like the beginning for Waititi. He's a refreshingly intelligent and inventive filmmaker, but most importantly, he's a storyteller. Hunt for the Wilderpeople feels like an old-fashioned folk tale, told with an energy and comedic gusto that makes it a rich and rewarding journey. And as good as the state of cinema is right now, we need more storytellers like Waititi in Hollywood.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.3/10)
Image Credits: Indiewire, Joblo