There’s a signature Taika Waititi stare — a kind of blank, baffled look the New Zealand writer-director's characters get when they’re frustrated. His characters share a deliberate sort of pettiness, not just a smallness of drive, but a smallness in the impotent, baffled way they greet obstacles. They’re all modest strivers, stymied by the littlest things, and dealing with frustration by refusing to adapt. And they’re usually hilarious. The juvenile adult protagonists in the romantic comedy Eagle vs Shark aren’t that different from the vampire he plays in his mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, or the struggling eponymous band in his episodes of Flight Of The Conchords. When they give the Stare, it’s as if they’ve vapor-locked out of sheer confusion at the barriers to their success, even if they’re just trying to get a housemate to do his chores, or trying to buy fruit from a street vendor who’s inexplicably bigoted against New Zealanders.
It’s hard to see how this kind of deadpan humor and petty-ante struggle could work in Waititi’s latest project, directing the new adventures of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s god of thunder in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. But viewers can get a first clue from Waititi’s latest New Zealand box-office smash, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, which starts with that familiar petty frustration, and expands into a rip-roaring ’80s-style action-comedy. Wilderpeople, which is loosely based on Barry Crump’s New Zealand classic adventure novel Wild Pork And Watercress, is Waititi’s most complete, polished movie to date. It’s also a bigger film than anything he’s made so far. But it still has his distinctive voice, a mixture of straight-faced absurdity and broad, outsized self-delusion. And it clearly shows how his style can scale up without losing its distinction. Like What We Do In The Shadows, Wilderpeople is laugh-out-loud funny and full of left-turn surprises. It just changes Waititi’s alchemy by bringing in a character who jumps energetically into the challenges the world throws at him.
That character is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a sullen 12-year-old orphan who's been bounced around the foster-care system so often that he responds to his latest adoptive family, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), by wearily getting straight back into the police car that brought him to their rural New Zealand farm, and waiting to be delivered somewhere else. He's a pudgy kid who wears a series of loud hoodies, and is obsessed with Tupac Shakur and being "gangster." In other words, he's a stereotype. But as he settles in at the farm and responds to Bella's frank, no-nonsense affection, he reveals himself as the kind of character Waititi excels at creating: self-confident in a frank, flat way, a little full of his own self-mythologizing, and desperately needy, even though he doesn't know how to acknowledge it. Just watching him interact with Bella and Hec would have been enough for a movie on its own: when his 13th birthday rolls around, and Bella celebrates with a silly little song played on a tabletop keyboard, Ricky's willingness to sing along instead of cringing with embarrassment says everything about how young he is, and how, in spite of appearances, the world hasn't really beaten him down. He's a sweet kid, and watching him blossom is fun all on its own.
But then circumstances send Hec and Ricky out into the beautiful environs of the New Zealand bush together, on the run from snappish child-welfare worker Paula (Rachel House), who's judged Ricky as a troublesome delinquent. Wilderpeople starts to look like a familiar story about a crotchety old fart and a plucky young orphan who make each other's lives better, after some mismatched-buddy jousting and a series of big calamities. But Waititi's brand of humor is dry and specific, and it lives in the details, like a scene where Paula and Ricky argue over which of them is the Terminator, and which is the weak, helpless, first-movie Sarah Connor. That's a typical bit of ridiculous banter for Wilderpeople, which frequently reveals its adults as more childish than the kids. It's also one of the many ways the film acknowledges pop culture, and the way people define themselves around it.
Neill is entirely enjoyable as a grumpy recluse, but Dennison is even more impressive in the way he hovers convincingly at the border of childhood, while trying to appear older. This is a film about people who've created certain images of themselves — Hec as a self-sufficient, silent loner; Ricky as a hyper-verbal, competent outlaw; Paula as a child-saving Terminator — but keep running up against their own limitations. It might be tragic, if it wasn't so sharply drawn, and if it weren't played so well for laughs. Neill and Dennison have an excellent comic timing, helped along by sharp, bouncy editing and a playful camera. Waititi keeps the pacing spritely for most of the film, and he manages action with an eye both for clear close-up conflict and the big picture.
There's a weird lumpiness to Wilderpeople's timeline, though. The story abruptly skips many weeks at what seems like a crucial point in the story, then zips forward by months without warning. It sometimes feels streamlined at the characters' expense, especially as Hec and Ricky go from childish one-upsmanship to competent partners. And the big ending action sequence arrives arbitrarily and abruptly, and on a fairly unlikely large scale. The soundtrack also seems arbitrary, jumping from a haunting choral number over the opening shots to the full-ahead charge of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" over a chase sequence, and from Leonard Cohen's mournful "Song Of The French Partisan" to a strange madrigal-ish keyboard score when Ricky wanders out on his own. Waititi likes practical, grounded gags that jump rapidly from gravity or hilarity, but the soundtrack's leaps are harder to follow than the tonal shifts.
Still, these are minor quibbles in a film that so perfectly reveals its characters both through the way they charge past calamity, and the way they subtly reflect their own pasts. "Okay, Debbie Downer. Can you think of something more positive?" Ricky asks Hec after one disaster. It's clear that Ricky is spouting therapy-speak he picked up from a counselor or social worker somewhere along the line. In Waititi's world, this kind of matter-of-factness fills in where another film would put a draggy monologue about Ricky's history, and what people used to tell him when he was depressed. Hunt For The Wilderpeople doesn't need to trade in those kinds of predictable clichés. It has its own weird, appealing voice. Over the course of an increasingly eclectic career, Waititi has honed that voice, and gradually made it bigger and broader. Time will tell whether it can stretch up to MCU blockbuster scale, but if he can approach Ragnarok with the distinctiveness and ease he shows here, it may mark a high point for the Thor series to date.