Thursday, 4 August 2016

Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016) - Movie Review

Even in spite of my attempts to not let the hype machine sway me when it comes to certain releases, there are still times when things get so intense that I stand back and say “Holy hell, just how good is this thing?!” As I write this, this film is standing at almost 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with all of one bad review that, when you actually read the thing in all its Geocities-esque glory, still gave it a slightly-above-average rating. The film’s writer-director, Taika Waititi, is not only slated to help co-write the next Disney princess flick with Moana but also directing the next Thor movie with Ragnarok. Even ignoring my somewhat lukewarm reaction to his previous film What We Do In The Shadows (I liked it, but not nearly as much as the rest of the world seems to), this is raring up to be the prologue to a rather explosive break in the mainstream. Now, given how happy I still am that other Oceanic directors like James Wan have managed to get their much-deserved chance to shine, I’m seriously hoping that this will pan out well. But quite frankly, this has a very ‘Boyhood’ feel to it before I even set foot in the cinema; you know, it’s still good but cut down incredibly small thanks to the hype behind it. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: I welcome the chance to be proven wrong on my scepticism.

The plot: Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a troubled kid who is left by child services to live with foster parents, farmers Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). However, when Bella unexpectedly dies and child services decides that Ricky needs to be relocated once again, he runs off into the bush with Hec hot on his trails. What follows is a nation-wide manhunt for the pair, headed by obsessed social worker Paula (Rachel House), where it’s assumed that Hec kidnapped Ricky and is holding him hostage.

Man oh man, is this cast just about perfect in all respects. I’d normally undercut my own praise by saying something like “nothing is perfect”, but when dealing with a script that’s this fiddly and potentially annoying, the fact that the performances are this damn good has to mean that they did precisely what they needed to. Hence, perfect. Neill is old hat at this whole acting gig by this point, especially involving weird events happening in the wild, but he still pulls off the cantankerous old fart very well.

Opposite him is Dennison, and if Waititi can make his break, then this kid most assuredly deserves his. With his very na├»ve and ‘gangstas as depicted by rap music’ mentality of the world, it’s amazing how naturally he performs literally every line he’s given. The old man bonds with little kid premise may sound similar to 2009’s Up, but that’s only because these two have equal if not greater chemistry than Carl and Russell. Te Wiata, despite how relatively little screen time she gets, still gives the impression of weird yet approachable during that time. House gives a biting depiction of authority that I haven’t seen attached to New Zealand since the days of Bro Town, not to mention being done this well. And opposite her, we have Oscar Knightley as the bumbling cop, and credit to him for managing to stand next to Paula and not getting bowled over.

Taika Waititi made his mark on New Zealand cinema through working with Jermaine Clemons of Flight Of The Conchords and showcasing a real understanding of the more awkward side of indie cinema. Emphasis on the ‘ward’ in awkward there, as some of these films are so batshit as to only be conceivable by a man fresh out the asylum. I rarely advocate for judging books by their covers, but one look at the poster for Eagle vs Shark and you have a good idea on the tone of the film. Now, I mentioned his last film earlier and one of the main reasons why I couldn’t get into it as much as others is mainly because of its incredibly awkward sense of humour, hitting legitimate cringe levels at times.

Here, it feels like Waititi was well and truly prepared for his Hollywood moment as this looks like him transitioning between his smaller Kiwi work and the bigger productions that are about to come. Sure, his ability at cringe comedy is still here, but I could make a drinking game out of how many times it happens in this movie and still be sober enough to drive home from the theatre. Alongside the toned-down awks, this has a very grandiose and sweeping look to it thanks to some utterly gorgeous camera work from DOP Lachlan Milne, especially in the establishing shots. Since this film mainly takes place in a single forest, this might seem off, but he makes damn sure that said massively encompassing forest looks as scenic as possible. Not only does this style work as a means of transitioning between phases in the director’s filmography, it also aligns with an unspoken rule of indie filmmaking: Take something small and make it feel enormous. Except here, by film’s end, it genuinely does feel enormous, both in scope and in story.

Not since The Lobster have I seen a film with this kind of old school literary brilliance being put into the script, which makes sense considering this was adapted from a novel. But all the same, the way this film deals with its subject matter is absolutely, bona fide, 100% commendable. Maybe it’s because I have been involved in certain 'programs for troubled youths' in my life, but the way this film shows Ricky’s plight as a kid stuck in the juvenile system definitely rings true. Child services is depicted here as the kind of people who don’t actually care about the people they have to deal with, more they’re just doing what they have to do to say they’ve done their job. They treat the kids with all of the pessimism, assuming that they are only capable of doing bad and occasionally stretching it just to make sure other people see it their way, like when Paula is describing Ricky’s past offences. You know what, given how much of a mollycoddling hand I was shown back in school, I can definitely see some truth in that.

Not that this film stops at the surface level though, as it goes digs deeper at the system needed to keep creating kids like this. The lack of caring, 'they’re all scum', keeping everyone level by knocking everyone down system that, like a lot of ideas borne from America, should have never left their shores. Hell, it’s not just the kids here who are shown as victims of this: Hec himself is shown to be a product of the same ‘No child left behind’ scheming as Ricky. While the film does try to be even-handed in how it portrays the titular Wilderpeople, bringing in characters like Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) to show the extremes that a ‘screw the establishment’ mindset can go if unchecked, its heart is definitely on the side of the renegades of society. After what we discover about the upbringings of Ricky and Hec, as well as those close to them, it’s kind of hard not to be, personal experience notwithstanding.

All in all, and you have no idea how happy I am to write this, this film lives up to its hype. The acting is phenomenal, the direction is pitch perfect and makes great use of the natural NZ scenery like only great directors seem able to, and the story is one not only centred on the underdog but also what makes the underdog, making for a welcome change from the standard. For the love of all things good, if you haven’t seen this already, do yourself a favour and do so right the hell now. I eagerly await what Taika Waititi brings us next time.

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