Into the wild with an odd cou­ple

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

(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

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