A wannabe-gangster foster kid develops an uneasy bond with a reluctant parental figure as they trek through the New Zealand bush in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a familiar sort of coming-of-age movie made more interesting by the uniqueness of its setting and its off-kilter Kiwi humor. The film has already broken box office records in its native New Zealand. It's a bit too tame to catch fire here in the same way, however, despite writer-director Taika Waititi's growing track record as a cult comedy hero.
The mischief starts with Ricky (Julian Dennison), an overweight, undisciplined 13-year-old Maori boy who's blazed through a series of foster homes and reached the end of the line. He's taken under the wing of an older couple: Bella (Rima Te Wiata), who wins the young man over with unrelenting sweetness, and Hec (Sam Neill), who hunts critters in the woods and wants nothing to do with this obnoxious kid. At first, Hec's position seems reasonable: Ricky is a poorly defined character, introduced to us as a little hellion who's terrorized half the country before pulling an abrupt 180 in the first ten minutes and becoming a haiku-writing softie who's only looking for love. When a series of events causes Ricky and Hec to set off into the wild, some slightly off-color male bonding ensues.
Neill makes for a pretty great crusty outcast, even if he isn't given much to do beyond the broadest outlines of an outdoorsman persona. The chemistry between him and Dennison helps propel the story as the two are chased, The Fugitive-style, by a relentless figure from social services played by the great Rachel House.
"I'm the Terminator, and you're Sarah Connor," she barks at Ricky from the other side of a gorge, in possibly the least threatening smack talk ever. Because the authorities suspect kidnapping or worse, Ricky and Hec are forced to stick it out in the bush, hunting for food as, back in civilization, their legend grows. (The film's title comes from Ricky's comment that he and Hec are engaged in a lengthy state of migration, like the wildebeest.)
Tonally, Wilderpeople is more in line with Waititi's earlier, character-based humorous narratives Boy and Eagle Vs. Shark than his howlingly funny vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. Shadows was a laugh-delivery machine; this one, based on the children's novel Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump, takes itself slightly more seriously. But there's still a healthy dose of the familiar Kiwi deadpan we know from stuff like Flight of the Conchords (which makes sense, as Waititi directed several episodes). Ricky names his dog "Tupac", thinks every conflict should end in a blaze of gunfire, and is horrified when his sweet, dotty "aunt" suddenly whips out a bush knife and slaughters a deer. And Rhys Darby, a master of character-based comedy, gets a grade-A cameo as a nutty survivalist who's terrified of filling out government forms.
There's nothing new in Waititi's treatment of characters like these, and the staging of more fast-paced moments — like a climactic, Mad Max-style car chase — is too awkward to be exciting. But the film's subject offers an ideal opportunity to bask in nice crane shots of the country's untamed beauty. There's something charming about a lo-fi approach to New Zealand after the last decade-plus of big-budget grandeur via the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series. It reminds us that even when you're not pretending the country is some glamorous magical kingdom—well, it still kind of is.
Waititi is next set to direct the third entry in Marvel's Thor films, a series of epically bland proportions that (even by Marvel standards) hasn't been especially kind to any distinct directorial vision. But perhaps if we suddenly see the Norse God hunting wild boar in the woods, we'll know something of the director's individual spirit has prevailed.