A pitch-perfect mix of heart and humor lifts “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” a preposterous but moving coming-of-age story from New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi. “Quirky” sells short Waititi’s work, although it is certainly that. His earlier films “Eagle vs. Shark” and “What We Do in the Shadows” are full of a singular charm that comes from more than just the New Zealand accents; his characters, whether wallflowers or vampires, are believable but unusual and, in their own ways, lovable.
Characterization is its strength, which is a story of a 13-year-old foster kid named Ricky coming into his own in the New Zealand bush. Accused of such past crimes as “kicking” and “throwing rocks,” the pudgy hip-hop enthusiast blossoms under the warmth of his foster “Aunt Bella” (Rima Te Wiata) and despite the gruff dismissals of his foster “Uncle Hec” (Sam Neill).
The scenes between Aunt Bella and Ricky are simply sweet and perfect, well written and superbly acted. She teaches him to shoot, gives him a hot water bottle and books in his room. It’s nothing seemingly profound, but familiar scenes ring with originality between the two. The trio of heroes — Bella, Hec and Ricky — are ultimately so real and wonderful to watch because they are smart and independent, even when affection grows among them. Before long, Ricky is singing along to a Casio keyboard on his birthday and enjoying his best present ever, a dog he names Tupac.
When tragedy upends Ricky’s new life, he runs away to avoid social services. Predictably, he gets lost, and curmudgeonly outdoorsman Hec finds him. Their weeks in the bush are, again, beautifully written and acted.
Hilarious but not silly (OK, a little silly), warm but not mushy, details are filtered in perfectly through the dialogue, as when Ricky talks about processing grief after the death of a friend in foster care. In two sentences he tells Neill, and the viewers, a tremendously horrific story between the lines.
In that scene and every other one, Sam Neill is wonderful. At first merely lost in the bush, Ricky and his uncle become the focus of a national manhunt, since Ricky’s amateurish attempts to fake his death before running away lead the authorities to believe Neill in fact kidnapped him.
About half of the film consists of their adventures on the run, and with its PG-13 rating, this film is actually a family friendly adventure. It’s just so sophisticated and mordantly humorous you don’t notice at first that it’s also in the tradition of a classic boy’s adventure tale.
Young Julian Dennison as Ricky is absolutely delightful; it’s impossible not to fall in love with him. Whether he’s composing haikus about life in the wild with his uncle, or honing his shooting skills, his openness and honesty is refreshing because, while he is an innocent, he is also intelligent, which keeps the character from grating.
Director Waititi is officially someone on the “watch whatever he does” list. Rent “Eagle vs. Shark” (2007) if you haven’t seen it. “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) is insane, ridiculous and sublime and, amazingly, has a warm heart even though it is a ludicrous vampire mockumentary. And now “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” — a sweet, hilarious story with unforgettable characters. (And next year, his “Thor” movie is coming out!) I hope, as we follow Waititi in his future projects, empathy continues to be the connecting thread among wonderfully disparate projects. And of course, the New Zealand accents.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is playing exclusively at the Crescent Theater beginning July 15.