Every kid’s troubled.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), is a a defiant young city kid who is preoccupied with the gangster lifestyle. Meaning, that he spends a lot of his spare time stealing, cheating, cursing, rapping, wearing baggy-clothes, and just doing things one little kid his age isn’t supposed to be doing. In hopes of getting that all changed and he may shape-up a bit, Ricky’s sent by child welfare services to live in the country with foster mother Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, the cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Bella instantly takes a liking to Ricky, as does he to her, but Uncle Hec is a bit of a mystery; he’s not necessarily angry at the world or at Ricky, he just doesn’t care. However, their lives all change one day when Ricky and Hec are forced to spend a whole lot of time together, where they’ll have to learn to survive and depend on each other. You know, typical survival stories, but in this case, between a 13-year-old kid and a nearly-70 year-old-man.
What’s interesting about writer/director Taika Waititi is that it seems like he doesn’t necessarily have a certain style that you can pin down, but it’s twee and quirky enough that it’s still recognizable. In a way, Waititi is a lot like Wes Anderson, in that a lot of his humor tends to stem from editing and visual quirks, and less about what joke is actually funny and how it was delivered. Then again, whereas Anderson feels like he’s actually limiting himself, as well as his comedic sensibilities, by having to stick with his awfully pretentious style, Waititi isn’t afraid to move around a bit, feel for some room, and explore the ever-regions of humor and the comedy world as is.
That’s why Hunt for the Wilderpeople, while not a perfect movie, still shows that Waititi is a talent that needs to be watched.
Even after last year’s What We Do in the Shadows, a lot of people may be surprised about the adoration coming for him only now, but I didn’t quite love that movie the same that others did; in ways, it almost felt like one improv-sketch, after another, with the found-footage format just being a little bit of a bore. It wasn’t wholly original, despite having some nice bits and pieces of inspired humor. Here, that same sense of humor, style, and sense of storytelling is practically lost and with good reason – Waititi gives us a simple story, with a pretty simple execution that helps the movie out because it doesn’t take away from its heartfelt message about, well, love, family and all that sort of thing.
Yeah, it’s pretty cheesy to say a film is “about family and love”, but with the Wilderpeople, it’s true and it works; Waititi has a pretty conventional story on his hands here, but he adds enough heart, warmth and charm to it to where it doesn’t matter what conventions get played out again, or what similar beats get hit. All that really matters is that the beats work, the conventions don’t get tiring, and most importantly, that the movie itself stays sweet and charming. After all, a movie can be as predictable as Sunday mass, but as long as it has a little something more brewing underneath the predictability, then it’s all good.
For the most part, that is.
The only thing keeping Wilderpeople away from being a way better movie is the fact that, yet again, it is still a conventional piece of family-oriented film making. Waititi himself has some nice tricks and trades to make the interesting a whole lot more visually appealing, but other times, he can’t help but succumb to the fact that this story is as simple as you get. The characters work and, of course, the performances from both Neill and Dennison are quite great, but really, they’re all in a movie that’s plain and simple. Waititi may have dealt with the heavier-issues of alienation and sadness in something like Eagle vs. Shark, whereas here, he sort of just hints at them, in hopes that nobody will get too sad or depressed and get taken away from the fun that takes place in the woods with these characters.
That said, the characters do work and help make this as exciting as it can possibly be. As a child actor, Julian Dennison is not only very cute, but he’s also got some skill, too; a lot of moments and lines could have made Ricky out to be another one of those young, pain-in-the-ass kids that’s just annoying to all hell, but there’s more to him than just that. The fact that he wants to be a gangster and idolizes Tupac and Biggie, makes him more than just your ordinary kids protagonist who just likes to cause a lot of mischief and get into fights about cleaning their room.
Trust me, we’ve all seen it before. But thankfully, Dennison’s a good child actor and can make it all work, while also giving us plenty to adore about him.
Then, of course, there’s Sam Neill who seems like he’s actually enjoying himself here, even if he’s not allowed to show too much of it. Because Hec is such a stern and serious dude, you almost get the impression that Neill himself may be bored and want to live a little, but Waititi gives him plenty of opportunities to do so where he’s more than just an old codger who wants kids to get off of his lawn. Sometimes, all he wants is to be around people for a short while, have a good time, feel some sort of adventure, and then, yeah, go back home to where he won’t ever be disturbed again.
Can’t say I hate him, to be honest. In fact, he’s downright relatable.
Consensus: Seemingly not a very original flick, Hunt for the Wilderpeople works well with its attention to characters, heart, and a visual-style that keeps things interesting and most of all, funny.
7.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire