Hunt for the Wilderpeople ★★★★

Rarely do I find a comedy that can pull off the strong emotional beats it strives for. Often this genre can be bogged down by the presumed screenplay requirement of needing to have cheesy scenes of heart and in turn sacrifice jokes to do so. One of my issues with the recent release, Central Intelligence, was that it spent so much time dedicated to character development that it left no room for the actors to have fun because they were being thrown so many dramatic notes. I wouldn’t call that The Rock’s strong suit. Yet director/writer Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople pulls off this emotional weight effortlessly making me cry, cheer and laugh with the unconventional family unit that forms between juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and survivalist loner Hector (Sam Neill). Through the breathtaking backdrop of the New Zealand bush, Waititi presents the diversity of his native homeland with quirky, compelling characters in a surprisingly action packed indie comedy.

Why this movie hits so hard is because you feel like you're watching real people and those real people are also the outcasts and weirdos every town has. As Ricky is dropped off by Child Service Agent Paula (Rachel House) at the start of the film he is dressed like a flashy wannabe Kanye and is described as a menace to society but what we’re looking at this overweight thirteen year old who has never had someone give him a chance. Almost complimenting him is his new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) who is blunt, boisterous and dresses just as loud with cat laden sweaters. I genuinely fell in love with this motley crew that includes husband Hector that we learn has a similar checkered past that left him illiterate and distant from the world aside from his wife. I want to give everyone all the acting awards because the love between these characters emanates from the screen and equally the wretched pain when one of them passes. Even more of a credit to Waititi is at the somber and desolate funeral for Bella where you can feel the heavy silence in the room is undercut by the director’s cameo as an absent minded minister rambling on with a confusing Jesus metaphor. These beats resonate both light and dark and further the story rather than be halting, cliche plot devices.

This movie is a love letter to New Zealand. There's an abundance of aerial shots of the lush landscape that evokes such an awe. Much like city kid Ricky, we’re discovering this environment for the first time, unaware of what it has to offer. Within this breathtaking wilderness is a diverse spectrum of Kiwis. We meet the bro hunters who are consistently outsmarted by our leads, a conspiracy nut aptly named Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) and a young girl, Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), living in the bush with her equally young father. Much like Whale Rider replaced Once Were Warriors as most famous and culturally significant piece of New Zealand cinema, Wilderpeople supersedes with the most modern perspective of locals. I very much consider this a PSA for the country as Waititi is creating interesting characters against gorgeous scenery that welcomes you with excitement. Even the villains are nonthreatening in a Keystone Kops kind of way.

There is so much passion in this film with its storytelling and visual language. Waititi throws in some hilarious homages to Psycho and Rambo but admits that we can see a directorial stamp. Moving forward from low key What We Do In The Shadows, this movie is proof that he can work on this grander scale yet still be grounded and funny. A perfect prelude to Thor 3 I hope Waititi can hold onto his comedic voice, his influence from cinema and love for his country within the MCU. Future aspirations aside, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the best kind of indie film where it feels free with its expression, tells a story that is specific to where it's coming from paired with universal themes and here is both an intimate family drama and a large scale adventure. This film covers so much ground and you leave with a full experience plus a need to visit New Zealand for yourself.

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