I love comedy as a film genre, but I don’t see very many comedies. Having grown up with Monty Python, both the British and American versions of The Office, and most importantly, the films of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), my comedic sensibilities veer far more toward the dry and witty than the extended sketch improvisation of many hit American comedies today. This may be a reason why I loved Hunt for the Wilderpeople so much, but its quality far surpasses my bias toward this style of comedy. Like the best comedic storytelling, the laughs in Hunt for the Wilderpeople are organic, stemming from character conflict and clever situations rather than the outrageous or grotesque. Most importantly, the comedy is appropriate for the world that’s created within the film’s opening moments.
Twelve year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled child in the foster care system. After a string of failed relationships with host families, Ricky is given one last chance to make a match or he’ll be returned back into New Zealand’s juvenile detention system. He’s given over into the care of a kind woman named Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff bushman husband named Hector or “Hec” (Sam Neill). Though Hector doesn’t seem to care for Ricky, Bella loves him immediately, helping him to finally feel as if he’s found a true home.
However, after tragedy strikes, Ricky and Hector are left alone in a decidedly antagonistic relationship that will no doubt end in Ricky being returned to juvenile care. Determined to not be taken back into the system, Ricky runs into the bush. Hector pursues him, but after an injury strands them in the wild, Ricky’s child services officer assumes the worst. Due to this misunderstanding, the police soon mount a countrywide manhunt to find Ricky and Hec who, against their own wishes, must band together to evade their pursuers and maybe finally make it out of a world from which they both feel extremely disconnected.
As with the best comedies, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s humor is built upon a solid foundation of drama and character. Ricky and Hec’s journey is hilarious, but also full of heart and warmth as both of them struggle to push past the emotional walls they’ve constructed to protect themselves from a society that shuns them. Julian Dennison as Ricky showcases an incredible talent for line delivery and is equally game for the more dramatic scenes in the film, holding his own against a stellar Sam Neill’s whose Hec begins as a gruff caricature and ends the film as a fully realized, three-dimensional man. Even the bit players are great. Rima Te Wiata makes the most of her brief screentime as Bella, imbuing her with an effortless warmth that makes it easy to see why Ricky takes to her so quickly; and Rachel House is hilarious as Ricky’s unhinged child services officer, Paula.
The great performance are supported by an even sharper script (based upon the book by Barry Crump) written by Taika Waititi, who also directed the film. Waititi, best known for the vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and the romantic comedy, Eagle vs Shark, brings his trademark wit and visual flare to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, making it not only one of the funniest films of the year, but also one of the most beautiful. Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne use New Zealand’s sprawling, varied landscape to their advantage, creating a film made up of picturesque static shots, epic aerials, and hysterical crash zooms that will make any fan of Edgar Wright smile. All of this visual beauty is wonderfully supported by an off-kilter, almost John Carpenter-esque synth score by composers Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the funniest film I’ve seen this year. It is also one of the sweetest, using New Zealand’s unending natural beauty as the setting for a story about two people estranged from society coming to learn to trust and love again. From the script, to the editing, to the music and the performances, it’s a truly excellent film and one which I cannot wait to see again.
Waititi’s next project is Thor:Ragnarok. To say that I’m excited would be a vast understatement.