A great week at the movies continues:
Taika Waititi’s Kiwi bush comedy “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is the sort of movie that comes along every so often (think “The Gods Must be Crazy”) and catches you off guard, surprising and delighting with its singular sensibility. I can only assume it’s authentic – if it’s not, I don’t want to know – in which case New Zealanders may be justifiably proud of their countryman’s contribution to the year in film.
Julian Dennison plays 13-year-old Ricky Baker: self-styled thug, juvenile delinquent, fat kid. As “Wilderpeople” opens, Paula Hill (Rachel House, who’s built like one), a child services agent who’s seen one too many procedurals, transports Ricky to what she assures him is his last chance to make a foster home work before being consigned to juvie. His new foster “aunt,” Bella (Rima Te Wiata), offers a love as expansive as her waistline. Then there’s her hubby, “Uncle Hec” (Sam Neill), a stoic farmer whose first question to Ricky is, “Are you going to help out or are you purely ornamental?”
Not long passes before events take Bella out of the picture and compel Ricky and Hec to go on the lam. They encounter the kind of characters that, in 99 movies out of 100, would repel with their quirkiness. Here, somehow, they work, in particular Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), whom they meet attempting to hide behind a bush that he’s also carrying. When they eventually part, Hec tells Sam, “Don’t do anything crazy,” to which Sam’s wordless reaction is hilarious.
But there’s an even bigger laugh, one that almost threw me out of my seat. It involves the aforementioned Paula Hill and Andy (Oscar Kightley), the ineffectual cop who always accompanies her on her rounds. When Paula makes an important discovery at a crime scene, she flips open her mobile phone: “Get me the police.” It takes a second for the line to register, but when it does it’s one for the ages. In a million movies with cops, I’ve never heard it before.
Dennison and Neill make marvelous comic foils, each walking the tightrope between antipathy and pathos. I fear this may be the first and last time we see Dennison, but I’ll hope against hope he finds something as special again sometime. Waititi mostly steers clear of schmaltz, though the last “chapter” is a bit less cool than the eight or nine that precede it. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a one-off crowd-pleaser, the kind you can’t wait to tell your friends about.