Before taking the helm of directing Thor: Ragnarok, New Zealand-born director Taika Waititi premiered his latest film Hunt for the Wilderpeople last January at Sundance to quite the warm reception. Now making its rounds through a plethora of film festivals around the globe, I was lucky enough to catch the one early afternoon screening of it at SXSW this year. Having heard mostly pleasant buzz about the film coming out of Sundance this year, I was surely interested in taking a look at what else Waititi had next in his bag of comedic tricks.
Branching off from his mockumentary approach that he brought to his previous feature What We Do in the Shadows, Wilderpeopletakes much more of a novelistic approach as the film is separated into ten chapters, with a concluding epilogue that will leave most viewers walking away from the movie with a pleasant taste in their mouth. Wilderpeople follows the resistant foster child Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), who has been continually tossed back and forth between foster homes from as far back as he can remember. Just from the very first scene, Waititi makes it apparent that Ricky is not happy with his current situation as his foster care agent, Paula forwarns his new family about his wide-ranging past delinquencies, but his new foster mother Bella (Rima Te Wiata) quickly assures that she and her grumpy husband, Hec (Sam Neill) are up to the task.
After a rocky first few days, Bella and Ricky begin to hit it off great as she takes him out into the woods and lets out her wild side that Ricky has never experienced before in the past. Suddenly, one day after returning from the woods, Ricky finds Hec sobbing over the dead body of Bella, thus setting the film in motion as the emotionally-distant Hec and Ricky are now drawn even closer together. Soon after Bella’s death, we find out that Hec has a criminal background that causes the foster facility to deem him unfit to take care of Ricky on his own. As Ricky discovers the news that he’ll soon be forced to leave yet another home, he heads off into the woods in an angry state of distress with his dog TuPac, whom he received as a birthday present from Bella earlier in the film. As time goes on, Hec promptly finds Ricky and insists that he comes home with him, which he eventually agrees to, but on their way, Hec ends up baking his ankle, which forces them to stay in the woods as he can no longer walk on it.
As you could tell, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has quite the plotty set-up, but Waititi’s ability to move his film at such a quick pace and pack in such an amount of story into it in such a short time is something that very few directors can do today in as short of a time as Waititi manages to pull it off in. The beginning few chapters of the film definitely had me weary as the excessive sentimentality was jarringly overbearing. Julian Dennison, who plays Ricky, fits his character quite nicely, but it really takes a while to warm up to the nuance of his character. Ricky’s rebellious presentation is often too overbearing even when considering what kind of position he is in, especially when Waititi weaves in the sentimental element with him and Hec that just feels absurdly fake. Waititi doesn’t spend enough time gradually transitioning their disdain for each other into their sudden caring for each other in the slightest. This change in their relationship just happens abruptly as the two suddenly care for each other. It is understandable that two eventually warm up to each other as they spend more time together, but Waititi uses his novelistic structure as narrative gimmick in order for the two to now like each other, as the two suddenly like each other after the start of a new chapter.
Luckily, Waititi’s deftly written screenplay is filled with such a remarkable amount of comedic joy that these complaints don’t hamper the film to as much of a degree as they normally would. Waititi has a distinctly unique comedic sense that not many directors know how to bring to the table like the way he exhibits here and as well as in his past work. Without this, Hunt for the Wilderpeople would have been an unbearable experience, but luckily Waititi’s unique vision allows for this to blossom into something that is at the end of the day worthwhile, despite so many events throughout the film that will leave you with your eyes rolling at it.