In 'Wilderpeople,' a manhunt for Kiwi farce
"Flight of the Conchords" went off the air in 2009 but the beat has gone on in the films of Taika Waititi.
Waititi, who was a writer and director of that cult HBO series, has carried on the show's New Zealand deadpan and childlike whimsy with varying success. Often collaborating with "Conchords" star Jermaine Clement, Waititi has previously seesawed too far into quirk (2007's oddball romance "Eagle vs Shark") and risen to heights of comic understatement (2015's vampire mockumentary "What We Do in the Shadows").
In "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," a huge hit in Waititi's native New Zealand, also delights in teetering — clumsily but charmingly — between fantasy and reality. The film is a fable about a heavy-set foster kid, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), and a reluctant foster parent, "Uncle" Hector (Sam Neill), who, evading child services, go on the lam and spark a manhunt.
As far as buddy comedy pairings go, few can match the unlikeliness of that in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."
Having run through foster families, Ricky, introduced as "a very bad egg," is dropped off at the remote home of Aunt Bella (an excellent Rima Te Wiata who leaves the film too soon) and Hector. At first glance, Ricky is terribly unsuited for country life. On his first night, he tries to run away but gets no further than halfway up the nearest hillside.
Just as Ricky begins warming to life with Bella (the gruff Hector largely evades him), tragedy comes out of the blue, and Ricky is to be retrieved by child welfare. But Ricky and Hector, each fed up with society, resolve to "go bush." They totter into the mountains, and an increasingly absurd chase ensues, led by a militant child services worker (Rachel House).
The tale, told in chapters, comes from Barry Crump's 1986 novel "Wild Pork and Watercress." In Waititi's hands, it's a jerky ride.
There are passages that take after "Psycho" (a gratuitously bloody wild pig slaughter) and wintery poetic moments that reference "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." In their journey, the pair's encounters are both tender and cartoonish, ranging from an alluring young girl to a recluse named Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby, the fabulous bug-eyed MVP of "Conchords").
The grab bag of styles, awkward as they are, also supplies "Wilderpeople" its strange off-kilter energy. It's nimble enough to never be quite pinned down by its familiar concept before eventually going out in a blaze of farce.
"Wilderpeople" is ultimately winning, like all buddy comedies, because of the chemistry of its leads. Neill (the Sundance of the two) and Dennison (our younger and portlier but no less cocksure Butch) make an endearing pair of runaways.
On the heels of his recent successes, Waititi has been picked by Marvel to direct the considerably more massive "Thor: Ragnarok." As a test case of an indie director making a giant leap in scale, it should be interesting. If Waititi can handle the Norse god with the same low-key modesty that he's approached vampires and outlaws, Marvel may yet be brought down to size.
"Hunt for the Wilderpeople," an Orchard release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements including violent content and for some language." Running time: 101 minutes. Three stars out of four.