“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is one of those movies where everything about it just works. It’s a remarkable thing, given how disparate so many of the parts feel. It’s part coming-of-age tale, part heavy drama and part 80’s action tribute. Yet, in scene after beautifully constructed scene, all of that just works. Writer-director Taika Waititi’s visual sensibility is most like Wes Anderson here in the states, though to conflate the two would be a disservice to both.
Wes Anderson builds elaborate dioramas, Waititi builds character perspectives and lets the world grow around them. Ricky (Julian Dennison) is one of the most believable young characters to grace the screen in ages. Save for some detours here and there, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” stays squarely in Julian’s head space. He’s a worldly youth, fiercely independent, but still young. Some experiences that’d be small for Bella (Rima Te Wiata, “Pork Pie”) and Hector (Sam Neill, “Tommy’s Honour”), like slaughtering a boar, are big for him, even though he boasts about being a gangster.
Circumstance, however, force him and Hector (a true-to-life thug turned bushman) to run away together. Ricky is an orphan who’s been home-hopping in foster care for some time before he’s adopted by Bella and Hector in rural New Zealand. Just as he gets comfortable there, Bella dies, and child welfare worker Paula (Rachel Houser, “Moana”) comes to take him away. Before she can do that, Ricky fakes his death and flees, only to be immediately found by Hector. Through some serious misunderstandings, Paula believes Hector has kidnapped Ricky. The ensuing nationwide manhunt forces the duo to run away for as long as they can.
Make no mistake, this is a comedy first and drama second. The laughs come quickly and often, sometimes gut-busting other times not, and are always surprising. Bella’s funeral is a perfect example of the movie’s marriage of tragedy and comedy. The priest presiding it stumbles through a needless metaphor about doors, candy, and Jesus, much to everyone’s befuddlement. He even tries to do crowd work. It’s a moment of humor where a straight movie would make it heavy and sad.
That’s because, ultimately, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be. It doesn’t want to be just sad, funny or absurd. It wants to be all three. And it succeeds. With Ricky and Hector as the movie’s emotional core, those emotions pour out naturally. Their relationship is oftentimes overwhelmingly sweet without being sentimental. Waititi balances it perfectly, always making sure you know the darkness that brought them together. It takes a special kind of movie to incorporate all these seemingly unmatched feelings, and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is that special kind of movie.