Hunt for the Wilderpeople Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House. Directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at AMC Town Square.
Already the highest-grossing homegrown movie of all time in its native New Zealand, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is getting a limited release in the U.S., but it’s not hard to see it becoming a crowd-pleasing sensation. A warm-hearted, funny, well-crafted coming-of-age story, Wilderpeople is at times a bit overly sentimental, but writer-director Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) nearly always undercuts the potential for sappiness with a bit of deadpan humor.
Young actor Julian Dennison gives a breakout performance as sullen (but secretly lovable) 13-year-old orphan Ricky Baker, who’s been rejected from numerous homes but finds himself embraced by rural couple Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). At least, Bella embraces Ricky, while Hec mostly just tolerates him, until Bella’s sudden death forces the two together. Through an unlikely set of circumstances, Ricky and Hec end up on the run in the vast New Zealand wilderness, pursued by authorities (including an uncommonly determined child welfare worker) and surviving off their wits (of which Ricky has little).
The mismatched pair’s journey from antagonism to mutual respect and friendship is entirely predictable, but the contrasting performances help sell the comedy, with Dennison playing Ricky as an overconfident motormouth and Neill demonstrating little-used comedic chops as the gruff, taciturn Hec. Waititi, working from a novel by Barry Crump, gives Ricky a steady stream of one-liners and comebacks that Dennison delivers with a deft mix of overconfidence and insecurity. Ricky is such a winning character that it’s easy to see why even a man as cranky and misanthropic as Hec would come to love him. It doesn’t take long for the audience to feel the same way.