Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, dir. Taika Waititi)
Ricky Baker is a young boy in New Zealand who has reached the end of the foster system. This brings him to a farm on the edge of Bush and into the lives of Bella and her husband, Hec. Bella immediately takes a shine to Ricky while Hec remains on the sides and grumpy. Events transpire that force Ricky and Hec to endure each other in the dark reaches of the Bush. The public believes Hec has kidnapped Ricky and manhunt ensues that forces the two to become family, yet not lose their respective abilities to irritate the other.
Director Taika Waititi gathered a significant amount of interest with his mockumentary What We Do In Shadows, chronicling the days of a quartet of vampire roommates in Wellington, NZ. Previously he had helmed smaller independent films Eagle vs. Shark and Boy. Throughout his work, he is a constant collaborator with Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame. And, if you are familiar with that comedy duo then the style of humor present in Waititi’s work is strongly comparable. The jokes are very silly, very dry and everything holds a sense of endearment for the oddball quirks of the characters.
Wilderpeople is a film of many techniques and themes, and it could have easily fallen apart trying to carry so much weight. Miraculously, it balances all of these elements and presents a story that is both rife with pathos but never maudlin. There are sweeping epic helicopter shots of characters traversing the wild, yet the movie maintains a very intimate, independent tone. Characters are absolutely silly and absurd, but we never lose sight of the humanity the film is in touch with. In many ways, Wilderpeople feels like a movie you would have stumbled across in the 1980s, an emotional and smart cult classic that would grow in popularity year after year.
What so many American studio comedies get wrong is the idea that improv equals funny now. This is easily seen in the dozens of comedies released that have hours of deleted scenes where actors merely riff. Wilderpeople delivers its seemingly improvised comedy so effortlessly that the craftsmanship of writer-director Watiti is an invisible hand. And that is the hallmark of not just a good, but a great director, that they recede into the film and that its voice is singular yet diverse. The film has an overall sense of style and humor, but each character speaks in a way that is true to them. The supporting cast are remarkable, and my particular favorite is Rachel House (you probably heard her as the grandmother in Moana) as Paula, the absurd social worker who seems to simultaneously love and hate Ricky.
This picture has me excited to see what Waititi does with Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel Studios made headlines when Edgar Wright dropped out of Ant-Man citing the studio’s desire to focus on the franchise connections between its movies than allowing diverse voices to emerge out of the work. From the visuals I’ve seen, it appears this next Thor movie will be very different from its predecessor’s. My greatest hope is that Waititi’s sensibilities for voice and humor are allowed to come through.