I kept waiting for something to go wrong in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The first act is this exceptionally tight, efficient narrative—but with time for montage digressions as director (and screenwriter) Waititi gently examines lead Julian Dennison as his life goes through a pastoral upheaval.
Dennison is a tween on the edge of teen and has been bopping around the foster care system his entire life. He’s at his last attempt at a home placement—Rima Te Wiata is going to take him; she just happens to have a farm on the edge of the New Zealand bush (New Zealand bush being rainforest). So city boy to the wilderness.
We also meet intense but not empathetic child services worker Rachel House (and her suffering flunky Oscar Kightley); they’re going to both be important later on. Especially for absurdist—but good absurdist—humor.
And then there’s Sam Neill; he’s Te Wiata’s husband who she didn’t tell child services about (but they don’t care, apparently). He’s a gruff, tough, farming guy who’s not into the foster dad thing but loves Te Wiata. Waititi leans heavy on making Neill mysterious in the first act, but we soon find out the social awkwardness around Dennison isn’t just for dramatic impact; Neill’s an odd duck. It’s a particularly choice part because no matter what, there’s a hard limit to how much Neill’s going to have to do. The character’s got insurmountable constraints, which gives Neill and Waititi a lot of room to flex without having to worry about breaking through.
Also it’s not Neill’s movie. It’s Dennison’s movie.
Waititi splits Wilderpeople into chapters, with the first playing more like a short subject, complete with its own epical structure. The chapters end up working out, especially in the second act, which has Neill and Dennison thrown together by tragedy, on the run from House while trying to do right by Te Wiata.
Most of the film takes place over uncounted miles of New Zealand rainforest, with occasional stopovers at ranger stations or whatever, and Waititi makes the bush feel like a consistent, familiar setting without it actually ever being the same spot. Except when he does one of the really cool, digitally enabled composite shots—the camera pans in a circle, capturing the characters in the space at different times. Sometimes because they’re lost, sometimes because they’re found, sometimes because they’re on the run. Usually there’s great music accompanying it. If there’s not great music, then it’s just great sound. Wilderpeople, technically, is pristine work.
So while Dennison and Neill play fugitive—no one-armed references but a great Terminator one (though nothing compared to a First Blood riff, which is out of nowhere but absolutely phenomenal because Waititi makes it absurd, hilarious, and also exactly what the scene needs). Waititi’s rather good with the asides and outbursts. They always end up fueling something new in Wilderpeople, even at the very end.
The film’s a bit of a character study grafted to a wilderness adventure, complete with faithful dogs, stupid hunters, and bush folk vs. city folk wisdom. Oh, and Dennison having his “I like girls differently now” moment, after he meets Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne. Ngatai-Melbourne’s only in it for a bit but she’s fantastic and gets to show Dennison’s able to maintain the high level of acting even without the precise structuring of his scenes with the foster family. Dennison’s great, full stop, but Waititi’s also made a film where it’s so strong on everything else it could get away with him being one note.
He’s not, which surges Wilderpeople ahead.
Along the way, we find out more about Dennison, Neill, and Te Wiata while they’re finding out about each other and themselves. Maybe if Te Wiata and Dennison weren’t so good in the first act when they’re doing their getting to know you scenes, Neill would be able to steal some of the thunder but he’s very much there to give Dennison a frequent foil. It’s an exceptionally well-acted film, with Waititi’s direction of those actors as integral as the performances to its success.
The third act falls apart a bit because of course it falls apart a bit; once the film hits a certain scale, it’s inevitable the conclusion is going to be rough. Waititi holds it together through a bit of a too fast segue to the superior epilogue.
Wilderpeople’s fairly great. Waititi’s direction, his script, Dennison, Neill, Te Wiata, House, Ngatai-Melbourne, editors Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, and Luke Haigh—lots of spectacular work on display.