Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Waititi, 2016) – Sundance 2016


Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s director, New Zealander and Sundance veteran Taika Waikiki, re-entered the Park City spotlight in 2014 with his sleeper hit, What We Do in the Shadows. Almost instantly, this mockumentary about vampires, expanded from a 2005 short, became a cult classic.

Settling in among the crowd of several thousand that had gathered at Eccles theater to watch the world premiere of Waikiki’s new flick at this year’s Sundance, we were probably one of the only ones who hadn’t seen his previous film (or the one before that, Sundance Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema winner Eagle vs Shark). The Friday evening crowd was giddy and expectant. After a brief introduction by the festival programmer, Taika himself got up and began rambling and deadpanning for several crowd-pleasing (if too-long) minutes before exiting the stage and allowing us to screen his new movie (see intro and Q&A below).

If I worried that the film would share the same sense of humor as its director’s little speech (which I found a shade incomprehensible and light on actual funniness), I had good reason. From the get-go, Hunt of the Wilderpeople bore the mark of its creator’s bizarre sensibilities. Luckily, however, these sensibilities translate well into on-screen comedy.

The New Zealand coming-of-age tale stars relative newcomer Julian Dennison as fat foster kid Ricky Baker (a Boyz n the Hood reference?) who’s had a few too many slip-ups. His exasperated social worker Paula (expertly cast Rachel House with her Cruela de Vil eyebrows) leaves him, feet dragging, at the edge of the bush with his new foster family. “Family” is perhaps a stretch as the residents of his new home consist only of the irrepressible “Aunt” Bella (Rima Te Wiata), a rare mashup of eager, wise, and goofy, and Bella’s long-time partner Hec (Sam Neill of Jurassic Park fame–did you know he was a Kiwi?), a gruff, taciturn man who prefers Ricky give him a wide berth.

Just as Ricky finally begins to feel comfortable and safe, tragedy strikes his new home. A series of unfortunate events later, Ricky and Hec find themselves unwittingly on the lam. Now Ricky, city kid and hip hop lover (he names his new dog Tupac), must learn how to live in the bush and to win the love of the prickly old man who has become his only friend and family.

If it sounds far-fetched, it is. Intentionally so, an homage to certain types of 80s films that feel distantly familiar to me. But I confess to be out of my depth here. What I do know is that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is great fun. A traditional feel-good dramedy (really more comedy than drama, though) with a distinct sense of humor. Does Waititi sometimes go too far? Yes, particularly in the sequence with Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), a conspiracy theorist who lives in a trailer. (Not only is the humor there aimed more at the level of an eight-year-old, but Sam is one of the less imaginative characterizations in the film.)

It’s nice to let loose once in a while, for levity to break through what can be an otherwise intense, sometimes bleak, most often serious collection of films. Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a perfect start to our festival experience.