New Zealand writer and director Taika Waititi has been on quite the roll recently, starting with 2013's vampire mockumentary "What We Do in the Shadows" and continuing on with a full-fledged entrance into the big time (at least by U.S. ticket sales standards) this month as he starts work as the director of 2017 Marvel movie "Thor: Ragnarok."
Before he gets all Hollywood and joins in on the superhero freight train, his latest film, "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople," is working its way through the country in limited release. Foster kid Ricky Baker (played by a scene-stealing Julian Dennison), the near-13-year-old that society (and child services in particular) would rather forget, is driven out to the New Zealand bush to enter into yet another new family, his last chance at normalcy before being sent off to juvenile hall.
Well, normalcy of a sort. His new foster aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) thinks nothing of joyously disemboweling a bush pig in front of the city kid, and uncle Hec (Sam Neill going full-on Grizzly Adams) seems to much prefer the company of dogs and wilderness to precious teenagers with a habit of striking up haikus to better shoehorn out his repressed inner emotions.
Despite the culture clash and mainly owing to Bella's patience and nurturing, Ricky does fall into a state of comfort in his new home. Tragedy strikes soon after, and left with only uncle Hec to care for him, Ricky is again set to be placed into another foster home. Seeing this for the shit deal that it is, he loads up all his best bling-styled sweatshirts into a knapsack and departs into the bush with his dog Tupac.
Roughly 10 hours later when Ricky is hopelessly lost and on the verge of eating his dog, Hec shows up to guide him out of the forest. Things don't quite go to plan after an injury to Hec's ankle, and the two remain stuck in isolation for weeks, sparking a national manhunt for the lost foster kid and his supposedly bereaved and unstable abductor.
The two bond during their months in the bush, Ricky with the father figure he never had and Hec with the son he never knew he wanted. The film does have a sentimentality about it, but it's never cloying or forced down the audience's throat. Any realizations of feelings between the boy and the bushman come from a place of endearing stubbornness rather than anything overtly feel-good or mushy.
Dennison and Neill take up most the screen time, both delivering great performances that do a lot of showing how their characters are opening up and developing alongside each other without taking away from the comedy of the film. Ricky is the rare child character that manages to generate empathy from the audience without being cutesy, manically hyperactive or overly melodramatic.
Cheesy as it feels to say it, "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is truly touching at parts and remains bitingly funny all the way through. Waititi has shown he can pull off the smaller, more contained films with cleverness and grace. Here's hoping he can bring that to the world of juggernaut Hollywood franchises as well.
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