If there is a director right now worthy of keeping your eye on, that director is Taika Waititi. The New Zealand born, Oscar nominated friend of Flight of the Conchords has directed three exceptional films to this point: the recent Sundance film festival hit What We Do in the Shadows, the touching, tiny drama Boy, and now this film. Hunt for the People is a pure delight. It is a story that could only be told in New Zealand by a director who loves his country and loves the characters he is writing about.
Wilderpeople is the story of Ricky Baker (one of the best movie names, played by Julian Dennison), a troubled young man who has been shuffled around the foster care system. The state has found him a new home on the outskirts of the New Zealand bush with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Heck (Sam Neil). Bella really takes the reigns with Ricky and it’s not long before his uber cool exterior (his usual dress is a patterned hoodie and animal-print trucker cap) is melted by her warm welcome. Heck is less involved with Ricky- in fact he doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. But when Ricky disappears into the Bush, it’s up to Heck to go out there and save him!
The film is as fun and silly as the last sentence of that synopsis. Waititi manages to bring this fun, weird energy to the whole movie while still being able to deliver big emotional hits. As Heck and Ricky learn more about each other and learn how to survive the Bush with one another, they start to get along, they start to form a beautiful and unique relationship. They rely on each other utterly and completely as they encounter weirder and weirder fellow travelers in the woods.
One of the things I admire most about Waititi as a filmmaker is that he really understands how to make movies about kids. Both with this picture and the earlier film Boy, Waititi brings an interesting angle to movies about children. He doesn’t baby them, but he also doesn’t hold them to the same logic that he would hold an adult to. He respects his child characters as having a logic, but it’s not exactly the same playing field. His children characters have completely exposed emotional nerves that come from them not having enough time to finish construction on their walls.
The film is also a tribute to the New Zealand Bush. It is shot with an eye of wonder, capturing the beauty of the wilderness. Most scenes begin with a beautiful, sweeping helicopter shot capturing some part of this wilderness. It never feels boring, it never gets old, we are just being shown this part of the world in all it’s glory. While Ricky and Heck are lost in the Bush it never seems like they are trying to fight against the wilderness. The Bush is not an enemy to them, it’s just a force that they have to learn to communicate with and exist in- and they do. Overtime they become bona fide Bush People (sort of). Ricky trades in his red and white letterman jacket for some flannels. This becomes a part of their home.
This film captures New Zealand’s wilderness and New Zealand’s totally unique style of comedy. People are more laid back than they should be. They use casual language in very serious situations. They take themselves way too seriously. They point out when other people are taking things too seriously. They say things that they hear people say in movies (there is an excellent joke in this film about Miranda Rights). New Zealand comedies (particularly Waititi) are, at their core, very silly things with big heartfelt messages.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fun movie. It’s got characters who we care about. It’s got a great adventure plot. The ultimate word I can use to describe it is “nice”. Check it out.