****. Just. Got. Real.
I thought Waititi’s last film, What We Do In the Shadows, a vampire mockumentary, was fine, but not particularly great, which got me a lot of ire from indie movie fans, many of whom considered it the indie masterpiece of the year. Well, it wasn’t, but, look, it’s okay that What We Do in the Shadows wasn’t a masterpiece; because Hunt for the Wilderpeople absolutely is. In this film, which actually kind of beggars description, a boy and his foster father find themselves heading into the New Zealand wilderness on a run from the law/spiritual quest/bonding experience. It’s a simple premise, but it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a very long time. Seeing it in a crowded theater (surprisingly crowded, I might say, given that this is a film from New Zealand playing in Oklahoma) was an exhilarating experience; roars of laughter were near constant throughout the proceedings. The movie isn’t just funny, as a lot of movies are, it’s consistently funny, which is much more rare.
The performances are nothing short of incredible. Julian Dennison gives one of the performances of the year as a chubby, thug-life poser who finds himself decidedly out of his element in the wilderness; his physicality is wonderful and he has an innocent earnestness that sells even the most ridiculous moments without his character ever becoming cartoonish. Sam Neill gives his finest performance in years as the crusty, cranky foster father. He’s equally hilarious in his own dry, minimal way. If I’ve seen a performance that said more with stillness and bewildered looks in the last few years, I can’t think of it. The film is basically focused on those two, but the supporting performances are equally brilliant. Rachel House is hilarious as a relentlessly driven child services investigator; “This was no foster child,” she growls, crouching in the burned out hulk of a shed. Waititi has a brilliant cameo as a dim-witted minister. Rhys Darby is a revelation as Psycho Sam; wait until you see his escape tunnel. Maybe best of all is Rima Te Wiata as the foster mother; she has something like fifteen minutes of screen time, but she is nothing short of blisteringly hilarious. God, that birthday party is something to behold. The script is brilliant as well, of course, packed with unbelievably hilarious jokes; I honestly thought I was literally not going to be able to stop laughing at “Too soon.” But as absurd as the humor is, the most surprising thing about the film is its poignancy which Waititi nails perfectly, never using it cheaply or to undercut the humor. There’s something really amazing about just how silly the film is able to be without ever turning the characters into cartoons. As absurdly as they behave in this film, I still believed in many of these characters as real people. Dennison and Neill could easily be stereotypes, but they aren’t; you buy them absolutely as actual characters. Anyway, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. It’s a film that I think would absolutely play to a wide audience; I can’t imagine anyone seeing this movie and not liking it. It owes its small release schedule here in the US to its foreign origin apparently, some idiots apparently believing that people won’t go to see a foreign movie no matter how good it is. But seek it out, however you must. If you can see it in a theater, do it; the film needs support in theaters and the experience will be even better with an audience of people. If you can’t, see it at home. It’s a masterpiece in every way, destined, I think & certainly hope, to become a comedy classic. 4 stars.
tl;dr – hilarious script & brilliant performances add up to an instant comedy classic; never cartoonish, consistently funny & utterly charming, this one’s a must see. 4 stars.