Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ★★★★

Poor Ricky Baker. He gets shuffled from foster home to foster home and when he finally finds a place that he fits in...the woman taking care of him dies, leaving him with her gruff, cantankerous husband Hector (Sam Neill, as good as I've ever seen him). When Social Services decide that Hec isn't fit to take care of him, Ricky takes off into the wilderness. When Hec tracks him down to bring him home, the two instead find themselves fugitives, the focus of a massive manhunt through the wilds of New Zealand. And so a burgeoning friendship develops between Hec and Ricky, as Hec teaches Ricky to survive in the wild and Ricky teaches Hec to accept human contact and helps him through the grieving process.

That description makes "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" sound like a certain kind of movie: heartwarming, melodramatic, full of life lessons and uplifting moments about people connecting and dealing with their grief. But writer/director Taika Waititi isn't interested in making that kind of movie. The film has some heartwarming and uplifting moments, and they're highly effective because they're so sparsely used. Instead, Waititi embraces the absurdity and humor of the situation and crafts "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" into one of the funniest, most satisfying films of the year. Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, and he's not the typical adorable moppet that most movies would cast. He's overweight, unruly and a wannabe gangster. He burns things down, shoots guns, and names his dog "Tupac". He's a great character, and he actually seems like the sort of kid that would have a hard time finding a family to accept him. Dennison is a natural, and he's got great chemistry with Sam Neill, who is frankly fantastic here. The moment Neill scowls at Dennison, with that crazy old man beard and a fire in his eyes, I was putty in his hands. Within the first ten minutes, I knew that I would happily follow these characters anywhere.

Luckily, the journey that they go on is a remarkable one, full of surprises and hilarious moments and pure WTF moments. The soundtrack is great, the dialogue crackles, and there's even a few nicely done action sequences (I have a good feeling about the "Thor" sequel Waititi is currently working on). The movie has a wonderful energy to it, but it has enough confidence not to push anything or crank the action up unnecessarily. As a viewer, we are essentially just taking this journey along with Ricky and Hec, watching them get to know each other and survive in the wilderness and outwit their pursuers. The movie takes its time, allowing for odd interludes of dancing and some excellent, spirited cinematography and just oddball bits of character work. Its a movie that focuses on its central characters and their idiosyncracies. These are not stock characters, they're glorious misfits and it's a joy to spend time with them.

Occasionally, I found the movie to be somewhat aimless and kinda weightless, but it's on its own distinctive wave length and, like "What We Do in the Shadows", pulses with an originality and hilarity that is almost pure pleasure. I enjoyed "What We Do in the Shadows" a bit more, but "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is still one of the most entertaining films of the year. It's a blast, full of gut-busting moments yet still haunted by a sense of tragedy and melancholy at times. It's playful without sacrificing the sadness that is inherent within it. It's funky and weird. It's fun but it still worked its way under my skin. Most importantly, I just cared about Hec and Ricky and was rooting for them to carve their own life outside the boundaries of the modern world. Make me care about the characters, and I won't mind when the narrative occasionally rambles or meanders. In fact, I'll enjoy every weird digression, as I did here.

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