There are certain films that you just don't see coming. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those cinematic adventures that sweeps you right off your feet in the best way because it comes out of nowhere. It is also the emergence of young star Julian Dennison.
What's it all about? A simple story about a couple outsiders drifting into the great outdoors in hopes of finding something worth living for. Add in a crazy counselor, some police, and a fair mix of comedy and drama and you have a quiet summer gem. Adapted from Barry Crump's novel, writer/director Taika Waititi (who delivered the indie darling, What We Do in The Shadows) crafts a film that suits a teenager or their grandfather.
Remember Sam O'Neil? The Jurassic Park actor barely works these days but picks up the right speed of wise knowledge here playing Hector, the foster uncle of the young rebellious Ricky (Dennison). When Hector and Bella (Rima Te Wiata) adopt Ricky, they are warned that he "burns things, hits things, does bad things" and is a general nuisance to society. A modern Dennis The Menace. Is there a chance he could just be a kid who has been passed from home to home and just needs the right family to settle down? Without getting heavy, the film has a poetic stroke about the misconception of foster children.
When a series of events sends Hector and Ricky into the woods fleeing from the authorities, the real fun begins for the audience and the actors. The script is easy flowing and almost comes off as the actors ad libbing most of their dialogue. Hector isn't just an old man tired of his quiet life. Ricky isn't just a rebel without a cause. The two men help each other ignite the fire in their souls to become something different.
HFTWP is like a slick point guard when it comes to feel and pacing. Waititi doesn't allow your attention to stray. The characters are too interesting and the story is simple yet layered. Before it edges too far into drama, a hilarious joke or scene pulls it back into versatile territory and keeps the film moving.
The breakout star here is Dennison. He reminded me of a young male version of Rebel Wilson. He has a way of using his body shape as a vessel for entertainment and not repetitive fat jokes (talking to you Melissa McCarthy). It's all part of the role and the way Dennison plays it is very funny and carries the film through stretches where lesser talented performers would allow it to drag.
He doesn't make you feel sorry for Ricky, but also reveals how unpredictable he can be. O'Neil is the perfect co-pilot, unleashing unexpected humor and soulfulness in Hector's plight and rise. It's a perfect team that lifts the film a little higher.
Is Hunt for the Wilderpeople Oscar worthy? No. Will it change your life? No. What it does accomplish is making you feel good and making you laugh at the weird effects of human nature in the wilderness when on the run. It's a unique adventure film that isn't a waste of your time or money.