Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the only father-son indie movie at Sundance that culminates with a military standoff. Perhaps that should be expected from the film's writer and director, Taika Waititi. After all, he now has the reigns of Thor: Ragnarok, one Marvel’s upcoming big-budget superhero films.
The new buddy comedy, comparatively modest in scope, begins with the adoption of Ricky (Julian Dennison), an impossibly precocious 13-year-old described as a "bad seed" by his children's services worker Paula (Rachel House). Hec (Sam Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata) welcome the orphan to their modest home on the perimeter of the New Zealand bush, providing him a bed, a hot-water bladder, and love.
Shortly thereafter, Bella dies, becoming little more than a boxful of ashes and the film's narrative thrust. Scared to be sent to a new home and hopeful to scatter Bella’s remains where she wished, Ricky heads into the bush. Hec follows in pursuit, and suddenly the pair aren’t just on the run from Paula, but a national news story: "Perv takes orphan into bush."
A father / son comedy that ends with tanks
The plot hews to a conventional structure, hitting all the notes one would expect in the story of a surrogate father coming to love his wacky adopted son. They work together; they fall apart; they mourn the woman they loved, and in doing so, lower their guards and open their hearts. The film would be thuddingly familiar if not for Waititi’s willingness to grasp overused tropes and manipulate them into something new.
Bella’s passing is such a shame, because the character is just the dose freshness this charmed but formulaic buddy comedy needs throughout. With her scarce time on-screen, Bella is a humming pillar of light with her chirpy smile hanging above fuzzy animal sweatshirts. She’s smart, funny, and can slay a wild boar with a short blade. On page, she’s a female corpse that motivates the growth of the men who love her, but on screen, she’s a living, breathing human.
Neill and Dennison’s performances are serviceable, their bonding largely a stage for the younger actor to spin cheeky haikus, perform goofy dances, and spout references ‘90s rap music. For pathos, Waititi relies heavily on Neill’s stone cold face puckering at the corner, hinting at affection for the boy. Emotional moments are dispensed like Tic-Tacs — sweet but quick to dissolve. The two make amends at a waterfall and save each other from uncertain death a handful of times. To guarantee the waterworks, a loyal dog is put in danger.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not subtle, nor does it aspire to be. The pulsing electro-pop soundtrack, the ‘70s action film camerawork, and the emotionally manipulative script are designed to evoke every emotion it can: sadness, joy, nostalgia, awe. The latter feeling is the most memorable, and nullifies many of the film’s flaws — at times, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is truly awesome. A flyby of the sprawling New Zealand landscape is lush enough to trigger memories of James Cameron’s Avatar. And the film concludes with the rumbling of tanks and one of the finest action set pieces in recent memory that doesn’t rely on blood and death.
Waititi appears to be the perfect director for a Marvel movie
It's unclear when — or if — Wilderpeople will get a release in the United States. For American audiences, it exists in this moment mostly as proof of what director Waititi could do with his next film, Thor: Ragnarok, an expensive Marvel superhero blockbuster. It's safe to say that film’s American release is certain.
Ragnarok is rumored to be a buddy film, too, partnering Thor with Hulk on a galactic road trip. In a post-film conversation, Waititi talked about some of his favorite buddy films, including Badlands, Paper Moon, and Romancing the Stone. He says he’s ready for the challenge.
And judging by Wilderpeople, Waititi’s the ideal director for a Marvel project: he's an artist brimming with strange ideas and a good sense of humor, as well as a respect for the classics and an unabashed desire for commercial success. Let’s just hope that when Waititi takes on Marvel he doesn't make a habit of using great female characters as motivation for two closed-off men to open up.