Sam Neill and big screen debutant Julian Dennison star in the offbeat New Zealand culture clash comedy, one of the funniest films of the year so far

Fans of New Zealand film director Taika Waititi need no introduction to the absurd and very funny landscapes he creates in movies as diverse as vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows (2014) and deranged romance Eagle vs Shark (2007). But the poignancy of his relationships has sometimes been overlooked.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is his new odd couple comedy drama, the tale of a troubled foster child – ‘a real bad igg’ – who gets one last chance placement with a family before he’s sent to juvenile detention. But the family he’s sent to is an ageing couple who live on a remote and rugged hill farm. How will a hip hop street kid settle down in a place without Wi Fi and no McDonald’s for miles?

The answer is… badly… and the streetwise but country-dumb teen Ricky Baker (a super charming Julian Dennison) soon tries to run away from Hector (Sam Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata). He doesn’t get far, at least not the first time.

The culture clash sets up a constant supply of gags, such as when Bella kills a pig for their supper and obliviously smears herself in blood. But a shocking event leads Ricky to make one last bid for freedom and, when Hec finds he’s gone missing, he heads into the dense and disorienting high country ‘bush’ to find him.

Meanwhile, the police leap to the wrong conclusion and believe the old farmer has abducted Ricky and a national manhunt is launched.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople employs the classic device of an odd couple who don’t understand each other but in adversity have to form an alliance. If that sounds like a cinematic cliché, the performances of Neill and Dennison and the direction of Waititi elevate it into a poignant and compulsively funny adventure which leads them into many difficulties, while always managing to stay one step ahead of the police.

At one point, desperate for food they decide to enter a hikers’ hut and soon encounter three wild pig hunters, who smell a big reward. The ensuing scene where Ricky tries to explain he hasn’t been abducted while at the same time innocently implying that a horrified Hec is a paedophile is one of the film’s many comic high points.

'Hunt For The Wilderpeople' film premiere, Sydney, Australia - 29 May 2016
Stars Sam Neill and Julian Dennison with director Taika Waititi

 

It’s to Waititi’s credit that he creates a deeply convincing relationship between the illiterate loner Hec (a rarely better Neill) and the wise-cracking but sensitive Julian, while also avoiding any sentimentality and providing an all-guns-blazing conclusion (a wonderful homage to the classic 1981 New Zealand film Smash Palace).

Add to this a generous handful of superb supporting characters – including Rhys Darby as a paranoid survivalist, Rachel House as the scary youth officer with a deeply menacing motto “No child left behind” and Waititi himself as an inappropriate vicar – and you have a unique film that lifts the ‘quirky movie’ firmly into the mainstream.

It’s no surprise to discover it set box office records in New Zealand while also being rapturously received at the Sundance Film Festival. One of the comic highlights of 2016.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens nationwide in the UK on Friday, September 16. Cert: 12