Saturday, 1 October 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The absolute best thing about cinema, as far as I'm concerned, is its ability to make you feel any number of things. Naturally, different genres evoke different responses. Horror films can make us feel scared, comedies can make us feel joyous, thrillers can make us feel like we're on the edge of our seat. These are all wonderful things to feel when enjoying a film, but what makes a film truly special is when it evokes a feeling that isn't bound by genre, a feeling that so rarely comes across on the big screen anymore. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those films. As a comedy, it makes you laugh consistently, and it makes you feel happy. As an adventure story it grips you, and makes you feel invested in where it's taking its narrative. As a coming of age film, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy as you watch the characters you've quickly come to love embark on powerful emotional journeys. But let's ignore all of that, for now. Let's ignore the individual components, and look at Hunt for the Wilderpeople as its own whole, singular entity. Because while this film does make you feel happy and compelled and warm and fuzzy, the best feeling it evokes comes from what happens when all of these things come together in the film's glorious final act: Hunt for the Wilderpeople makes you feel alive.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a troublesome kid who is obsessed with living a gangster lifestyle, is dropped off by child welfare worker Paula (Rachel House) to live with a new family, loving Aunt Bella and her grouchy husband Hec (Sam Neill). Ricky quickly becomes accustomed to his new life, but when an unforeseen circumstance threatens to throw his life back into uncertainty again, he fakes his own death and runs away into the New Zealand bush under the belief that he can make a new life for himself there. Hec pursues him to try to bring him home, but when the child welfare services find the house abandoned and the barn burnt down, they assume that Hec has abducted Ricky, and begin a manhunt for the two of them. It's a charming story right from the offset, but it's the direction the narrative forms once the film takes flight in which Hunt for the Wilderpeople truly comes together. Kiwi director Taika Waititi has taken a lovable and enjoyable story, and elevated it to pure greatness in terms of direction, screenplay, tone, style, cinematography and performance. Quite frankly, it's just about perfect in every way.

The absolute star of Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn't its director, though, but newcomer Julian Dennison. Ricky as a character has every right to be annoying and frustrating and someone you don't really care for, but Dennison seems to understand Ricky in a beautifully adept way. Whenever Ricky borders on irritating, Dennison injects just a touch of the trauma and trouble that Ricky has been through earlier in his life, meaning he perfectly nails the kind of lovably annoying kiddy character that he should be. It's one of the year's standout performances, a fun and energetic but also thoughtful portrayal of an impressively complex character that never loses sight of just who he is. The performances are great all round, really, with House also landing every single one of Paula's comedic beats with ease, as well as other supporting characters seamlessly fitting in with the film's overall tone. Neill is also terrific as Hec, and while Hec may seem like quite an archetypal character when we first meet him, Neill works wonders with Waititi's script and adds layers and layers of depth to him without ever sacrificing the nuance that his character so desperately needs. Ricky and Hec seem to be ripped straight out of Pixar's Up, but once they begin to let their complexities and their personalities flourish, we start to see so much more in them. They're simply a joy to watch, and whenever the film needs them to take things seriously and get a bit emotional, they've more than earned their right to do so.

While the performances are so natural that it's easy to forget you're watching a film, it's impossible to ignore Waititi's work here, both as a writer and a director. With such a simple story on his hands, Waititi has packed his film with wonderful little flourishes that never fail to bring on a massive smile. The film is broken down into ten titled chapters, and bounces between them at various rates, allowing the narrative to feel like it's progressing even when it's standing still and taking a breather. He toys around with editing, occasionally jumping into rapidly cut montages or infectiously heightened comedic moments, but rather than feel forced these moments actually work to shape the tone of the film. Hunt for the Wilderpeople feels consistently energetic and lively, as well as seriously quirky. It's packed with as much personality as its characters, and it's a wonder to behold. Visually, the film is a delight too. Waititi makes the most of his stunning setting by exploiting wide angles and swooping overhead shots to explore the scenery, but also goes in tight whenever the film needs to explore the emotions running through its core. As a writer he has pieced together a beautifully efficient script, but as a director he has created a lovable piece of film making that, despite its tiny scale and modest budget, stands high above everything else this year has offered.

The first two acts are terrific. They move along quickly, explore the characters nicely, and they're a blast. But once Hunt for the Wilderpeople reaches its last act and starts to widen its scope and take on some other genres, it really comes into its own. The final act retains the lovable comedy and thoughtful drama of all that came before it, but it also takes on a whole new wacky kind of comedy with Rhys Darby's pitch perfect portrayal of Psycho Sam (a man who has a bush strapped to his back for, erm, camouflage), before diving head first into action territory with a legitimately intense car chase to wrap up the story. If there is a criticism of the film, and believe me it's tough to find one, it's that the first two acts (as fun and quirky as they are) could maybe push a bit harder to stand out. This hardly matters though, as the film does this perfectly in its third act, and it just pulls everything together in an almost poetic manner. The final sequence - so beautifully written and performed - softly scoops up every emotional beat that the film has played thus far and lays them all out on the table in front of us, and then just goes and checks them all off again in a matter of moments. This is what I mean when I say the film feels human. It so efficiently combines a plethora of feelings and emotions (both positive and negative) and forms something that doesn't feel scripted. It feels real, it feels lifelike. It feels human.

The fact that the film is also brilliantly funny feels almost like a bonus. It will get you laughing out loud within minutes, then have you wiping away a tear just moments later. It has such a firm and focused hold on its tone and characters, but it never looks like it's trying too hard. Every beat feels natural rather than methodical, every character feels real rather than planned. Ricky's obsession with the gangster lifestyle - he even names his dog Tupac -  is a brilliant touch, and leads to many of the film's funniest moments; his dramatic delivery of "Shit. Just. Got. Real." evoked the biggest laugh in the busy cinema I saw this in. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is so precise with everything, but Waititi has accomplished this in such a laid back manner that it's almost impossible to see unless you look deep. It's a stunning achievement for him as a director, and something that I hope he is able to transfer on to the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, his next feature. He has made something really quite special with this, and I can't wait to revisit it time and time again, if only just to spend another ninety minutes with the characters here. It's an absolute joy from the very first minute, bringing on almost every emotion you can name without ever looking like it's trying. It's just wonderful.

To Summarise: Warm, funny, and deeply felt, Hunt for the Wilderpeople makes for an extremely enjoyable adventure that finds a star in both director Taika Waititi and newcomer Julian Dennison.

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