Into the wild with an odd couple
(PG) ince its successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in America in January, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has become the all-time New Zealand box-office champion, and it’s easy to see why. This immensely likable film is essentially an odd-couple movie, with a basic plot that has been consistently successful in the cinema for many years (a good example is Paper Moon, the 1973 Peter Bogdanovich comedy with Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum).
The new film’s protagonist is a podgy 12year-old named Ricky, and, as played by a remarkable child star, Julian Dennison, he’s its greatest asset — apart from the breathtaking North Island backdrops. Dennison’s comic timing and cheeky bumptiousness are a joy to behold. With a bearded Sam Neill as his foil, this funny, sweet-natured kid provides the film with its heart and soul.
We first meet him when welfare worker Paula (Rachel House) and Andy (Oscar Kightley), a dimwitted cop, deliver the boy to the remote property owned by Hec (Neill) and Bella Faulkner (Rima Te Wiata). A brisk montage reveals that Ricky, who sports city street gear, has been a major problem to anyone who has attempted to foster him, his crimes having included setting fire to mailboxes and drawing lewd graffiti. This is his last chance to be fostered, and if it doesn’t work it’s a juvenile home for him. Ricky takes one look at the rundown farm and gets back into Paula’s car, but he’s not given an option and, as it turns out, Bella proves to be a sweet-natured and patient woman. After a lame attempt to run away on his first night, Ricky surrenders to the inevitable — he has a new home.
Hec is not so keen. He’s a grouch who, though he clearly adores his wife, is evidently none too keen on bringing this strange kid into his peaceful, isolated world. As for Ricky, he’s thrilled to be given a dog as a present and a hotwater bottle to keep him company in bed each night. But just as it seems he’s has found a secure home at last, something occurs that changes everything. Ricky’s response is to head into the bush, with Hec hot on his trail, but a broken ankle delays their return and an encounter with a trio of sleazy hunters results in misinformation reaching the outside world. A reward is posted and a manhunt, enthusiastically led by Paula, is organised. And, of course, as the old man and the rebellious kid tackle the wilderness, they become reliant on one another.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople — the title is derived from Ricky’s fascination with a book about African wildebeest — is based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, and is the latest film from director Taika Waititi, whose Boy (2010) was an insightful look at the life of a troubled Maori kid. The director’s follow-up, vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, co-directed by his Flight of the Conchords partner Jemaine Clement, was very much an acquired taste, but the new film, which is divided into 10 chapters, is a return to form and his best work as director to date.
That said, he’s still prone to encourage overly broad performances from some of his supporting players — House’s child welfare officer is amusing at first but overdoes the silly stuff after a while and the loony hermit, Psycho Sam, played by Rhys character.
Fortunately, the principal roles are perfectly pitched, although it takes a little while to accept Neill, with his innately sophisticated persona, as an illiterate backwoodsman — it’s a credit to the actor’s skill that he becomes so convincing. Te Wiata’s Beth is every lonely kid’s idea of a kindly, if perhaps somewhat excessive, foster mum, and there’s a smart cameo from the director, who plays the minister in a funeral scene.
There are in-jokes galore for the Kiwis in the audience, and pop culture references for the rest of us — including a delicious argument about The Terminator’s Sarah Connor. There are animatronic wild boars, a rare bird, and a beautiful teenage girl who appears out of nowhere riding a horse. But none of this would be as appealing as it is without the performance of young Dennison, who is irresistibly funny and yet, in key moments, quite poignant. His confident assertion that a wanted poster for the capture of Hec has got the facts wrong (“It says ‘Caucasian’ and you’re obviously white”) is just one of many hilarious moments in this likable buddy movie. Darby, is another overripe The latest Australian feature film to have been made without any government support is Is This the Real World, a drama about a Mel- Is This the Real World bourne teenager who falls foul of the deputy headmaster at his school. Up-and-coming Sean Keenan — who was in Strangerland — plays Mark Blazey, an “ordinary” youngster with more than his fair share of problems.
Mark, 17, lives with his mother, Anna (Susie Porter), and his younger sister, Marley (Elise MacDougall). Anna has a few things to worry about, not least the behaviour of her unruly older son, Jimmy (Matt Colwell), who has had run-ins with the law. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Mark has thrown away a scholarship he won to attend a private school, and is enrolled in the local high school, where he quickly finds himself in conflict with the overbearing Mr Rickard (Greg Stone). In their first encounter, Rickard — a rigid disciplinarian — questions Mark about the rules he’s broken and about his general attitude, and Mark’s response (“I’m young — I made a mistake”) clearly doesn’t impress the teacher. After a confrontation with a group of bullies, whom he later befriends, Mark is drawn to Kim (Charlotte Best), a girl his own age, unaware — at first — that she’s Rickard’s daughter.
The film is the first feature written and directed by Martin McKenna, who has worked extensively in television, and it has screened at a significant number of mid-range international festivals over the past year, winning an award for best film in Indonesia. Its strengths are in the performances; Keenan, Best, Colwell and especially young MacDougall are effective in their roles, while Porter is a tower of strength as the troubled mother. Julia Blake has just one scene as Mark’s beloved grandmother and, as always, makes it well and truly her own.
The character of the aggressive Mr Rickard is problematic; no doubt there are schoolteachers in Australia who behave in the kind of overbearing, unfeeling, intolerant fashion that Rickard does, but I found the character basically unconvincing. The film also suffers from repetition — there are just too many shots of Mark doing cartwheels on his bike. But the scenes between the young lovers are handled with sensitivity and evoke that intense yearning that comes with first love.
Mark is a romantic; Kim is a realist — “I’m not ruining my life over you,” she tells Mark at one point — and the pitfalls of teenage romance are starkly illuminated.
Sam Neill and Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Sean Keenan and Charlotte Best in