The career of New Zealander director Taika Waititi is on a diverse and frighteningly fast-moving upward trajectory. In 2014 he wrote, directed and starred in the wonderful mock-documentary What We Do in the Shadows. Next year he is joining the MCU as he directs the next instalment in the Thor saga. Somewhere in the middle of all this, he managed to write and direct Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a beautiful, hilarious and heart-breaking tale of two misfits living in the wild bush of New Zealand, whilst the authorities launch a nationwide manhunt to find them.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled teen, a “real bad egg” bouncing from one foster home to another. An overweight, wannabe gangster rapper who makes up Haikus to help express himself, Ricky is taken to a new foster home in the country, to be looked after by Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (a gruff, grumbling, beardy Sam Neill). We first meet Hector coming over a hill carrying a slaughtered hog on his back. It’s a great intro to a great character, and Sam Neill is on terrific form, which is always a wonderful thing to behold
A series of unexpected events lead Ricky to run away into the bush, fearing that he will be taken back into care. “Uncle” Hec goes after him to bring him back, but gets injured in the process. When they can’t be found, child services assume that Hec has abducted the boy, and thus begins the manhunt to bring Ricky home.
The on screen duo of Dennison and Neill is an absolute winner. A hip-hop loving teenager and a curmudgeonly old farmer could be a bit one note, but the writing and performances bring so much depth and nuance to the characters, that you are completely in love with them from the outset. They will make your belly ache from laughing, and your eyes fill with tears.
The second half of the film becomes an all out chase movie, as they continue to try and evade the authorities. This risks the film occasionally falling into overt wackiness, particularly in the case of child services officer Paula (Rachel House) whose initial scene stealing turn begins to resemble something from a broader, zanier, more American style comedy.
Thankfully whenever Dennison and Neill are on screen, you are never far away from a moment of absolute genius. The references to Lord of the Rings and The Terminator for example will be considered among the year’s best movie gags.
With this film, director Taika Waititi has confirmed himself as one of the most assured comic filmmakers working today. It isn’t released in the UK until September, but I urge everyone who reads this to put it in their diaries and seek it out. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is as poignant as it is hilarious, and New Zealand hasn’t looked this beautiful on screen since it was Middle Earth.