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Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

June 24, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople PosterRicky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a “bad egg,” at least that’s what we are told by deranged child services officer Paula (Rachel House) at the beginning of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  But as the film goes on, we discover that this rambunctious gangsta-wannabe kid is actually pretty sweet and just wants a family.

Ricky is a foster kid who has just been placed with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), an older couple who live on a rural farm property in New Zealand.  Although Bella starts to form a special bond with him, coaxing his more sensitive side to come out, Hector remains distant and apprehensive.

When tragic circumstances lead Ricky to run away, Hector goes after him, and the two start to tentatively bond and forge a new life in the woods.  But a national search is put in place to find them, with the media assuming kidnapping and maybe worse, as Paula goes to increasingly ridiculous lengths to try to track down Ricky Baker and put him back in foster care, repeating her leering and vaguely threatening motto of “no child left behind.”

Directed by Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a brilliantly pulled off dramedy that shows an impressive maturation for the filmmaker.  Where his last film, the improvised vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, felt very loosely constructed, this is a much more polished effort that proves him to be a pretty major filmmaking force.  The story is told in ten chapters, and Taika Waititi shows complete control over the narrative, carefully balancing tones between quirky comedy and deeply felt drama.  A sequence with a paranoid bushman (Rhys Darby) springs to mind at how grounded it feels despite the absurdity of the humour, and the action-driven finale is exciting and genuinely suspenseful, without ever losing sight of what’s at stake for the characters on a basic human level.

The film works on multiple levels, delivering equally satisfying moments of both oddball comedy and adventure, but it’s the surprisingly genuine and honest emotion behind this tale that makes it truly stand out.  There are many wonderfully observed interactions between the characters, with an engaging and likeable performance from bright newcomer Julian Dennison, who shares some great chemistry with screen veteran Sam Neill, who is deeply affecting as he breathes gruff life into the role.

With a droll tone that has undertones of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a quirky and delightfully offbeat dramedy that also offers a poignant and surprisingly touching story of bonding through shared grief.  It’s a small gem.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas in Toronto.

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