Into the wild

Based on Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress, screenwriter/producer/director Taika Watiti’s award-winning Hunt for the Wilderpeople was a huge success in its native New Zealand, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term. (It was also an opening-night film at this year’s RiverRun International Film Festival – and quickly sold out.)

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a sullen, rebellious young orphan sent to live with his Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hector (Sam Neill) on their farm in the New Zealand outback. Ricky’s sullenness is matched by Hector’s surliness, but it’s not long before the boy begins to feel at home in his new surroundings.

But when Bella unexpectedly dies – her funeral is presided over by Watiti as a clueless minister – Ricky is to be sent back to the orphanage. In desperation, he decides to fake his own death and flee into the woods. It isn’t long, however, before Hector catches up with him. Thanks to a series of subsequent events and misunderstandings, the two become both an international media sensation and the target of the largest manhunt in New Zealand history, their pursuit spearheaded by increasingly obsessed and incensed social worker Paula (Rachel House).

Watiti has fun sending up the eccentricities of Kiwi culture, and Neill and Dennison make an enormously appealing team.

It’s particularly nice to see Neill, always a terrific actor, enjoy a rare comedic role.

Occasionally echoing the work of Wes Anderson, Hunt for the Wilderpeople neatly combines black comedy and absurdist humor with a coming-of-age parable, and Watiti smoothly incorporates some bittersweet moments and surprisingly slam-bang action sequences into the mix. This is his fourth directorial outing, and he’s grown more assured each time. Only toward the end, when it looks as if he’s painted himself into a corner, does the film become a little predictable – but hardly enough to spoil all the fun that has gone on before.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens Friday !