EACH FRIDAY IN Auckland, the city council arranges for a film to be projected onto one of the enormous factory chimneys that give their name to Silo Park. It was there, on a balmy night in January, that I saw the exceptional Kiwi-made horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows for the second time. In spite of an Academy Award nomination for Two Cars, One Night, the co-director (and co-producer, co-writer and starring actor) of What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi, has historically received relatively little fanfare outside of his native New Zealand. That changed, of course, when he was announced as the director of Thor: Ragnorok; now, he’s being touted as a future Star Wars director. “Taika Waititi is here to save the blockbuster,” ran one gushing GQ headline.
Waititi’s follow-up to What We Do in the Shadows was Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an adaptation of Barry Crump’s adventure novel Wild Pork and Watercress. Thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a juvenile delinquent who was abandoned by his mother and is taken to live on a remote farm in the New Zealand bush with “Aunt” Bella, his new foster mother, and her bad-tempered husband, Hec (Sam Neill). Just as Ricky (and his new dog, Tupac) are settling into their surroundings, however, a sudden tragedy threatens to ship him away once again; rather than allow himself to be taken into the custody of the strangely aggressive and persistent child welfare services, he and Tupac head off into the bush.
Taika Waititi has something of a knack for creating memorable and sharply defined characters in down-to-earth settings, and a signature directorial style that has shades of Wes Anderson but is unquestionably his and his alone.
Taika Waititi has something of a knack for creating memorable and sharply defined characters in down-to-earth settings, and a signature directorial style that has shades of Wes Anderson but is unquestionably his and his alone. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople the deep-heartedness that is such a trademark of Waititi’s films takes precedence over the silliness and dry humour that dominates What We Do in the Shadows. Which, I hasten to add, is not to say that Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t funny. It’s hard to imagine a Waititi film that couldn’t coax a laugh out of even the most miserable cinema-goer. Paula (Rachel House), the social services zealot desperate to “bring in” our chubby hero is particularly deserving of a mention. “I’ve been in this game a long time,” she says, stoney-faced. “‘No child left behind’ is our motto. Well, it’s not, you know, the official motto, but it’s definitely mine.” (In point of fact errant Ricky himself, meandering around the New Zealand bush in his oversized hip-hop threads, is funny without having to try.)
Paula (Rachel House), the social services zealot desperate to “bring in” our chubby hero is particularly deserving of a mention. “I’ve been in this game a long time,” she says, stoney-faced. “‘No child left behind’ is our motto. Well, it’s not, you know, the official motto, but it’s definitely mine.”
For what is essentially an odd-couple flick with an emotional thrust that is impossible to ignore, Waititi does a commendable job of maintaining a light tone that is only rarely punctured by allusions to Ricky’s past (and to Hec’s, for that matter). It’s partly because these characters don’t indulge their sorrows or offer them up to each other in lengthy sob stories that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is so watchable: underpinning it all is realism. Accordingly none of the main characters fit any recognisable archetypes. The caricatures are reserved for the (largely incompetent) pursuing police and child welfare services.
If nothing else, Hunt for the Wilderpeople illustrates that coming-of-age cinema doesn’t have to be mawkishly sentimental, but that’s not to say it’s lacking in humanity. In fact it’s really quite charming and touching in places, which is also to the credit of Dennison and Neill, who are the heart and soul of the film. There are flaws, of course––most of them in the final third of the film, which owes something to Thelma and Louise, and the plot itself gradually thins as the story progresses. But the way in which Waititi develops character and balances humanity and comedy makes his films exceptionally watchable, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is no different.