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Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

From the first moment of writer/director Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you are overcome with a sense of comfort. Everyone has their movie equivalent of comfort food and this quality is gluttonous in this film — the fourth feature from the New Zealand director — which features an ambient synthesizer score mixed with a medley of noticeable pop songs to instill emotions in its fun and tender moments.

What is most enticing about Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not that it exudes a refreshing calmness that has you leaving with a smile on your face, but that it also contains such craftsmanship and care from Waititi — opening your eyes to comfort being not just calm, but invigorating.

The film follows Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a foster child on his last strike, who is being taken to a house in the New Zealand wilderness and put in the care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). Ricky is initially resistant to his forced isolation, but like us with this movie, can’t help but become smitten with the warmness exuded by Bella, who does her best to create a home for this boy who has never really comprehended the word.

The bliss is short-lived as tragedy strikes and Ricky decides to make his escape into the wilderness where he is eventually tracked down by Hec, who injures himself and forces the party to stay in the woods for a few weeks while he heals. In this time, Paula (Rachel House) begins a nationwide manhunt to track the two down with Hec being penned as someone dangerous to the boy.

It feels like we haven’t seen Sam Neill in much since his departure from more mainstream fare like Jurassic Park, but he breathes life into a relatively cliched character here. Hec is the living image of isolation and works to establish a valley between himself and whomever he is interacting with. Neill plays him with both intensity and emotion, which makes his evolution into become much softer towards the young Ricky feel earned and satisfying as the film goes along — though Julian Dennison’s performance as the chaotic, but lovable boy helps aid in this change.

Waititi has always impressed me with his work with his most recent film, What We Do In The Shadows, being one of my favorites from last year. While he started with a more simple and quirky aesthetic with his first film, Eagle vs. Shark, he has progressed as a filmmaker in his following movies and Wilderpeople may be his first true masterpiece in filmmaking. His writing always features a welcome mix of comedy and drama that feels so weightless that it is hard to believe the films exist and are so well put together.

A lot of the story beats are familiar, but he adds such a cinematic pull to them that they become both fresh and invigorating. One technique he implements is having the camera sit stationary on a tripod while he moves it in a clockwise manner. At the same time, characters from the film filter in and out of the frame with the same ones intersecting to create a montage-like sequences that lacks the most common elements of this time progressing technique. He also takes a lesson from director Wes Anderson and remembers that pans, zooms, and tilts can create as much humor as an improvised line and allows the characters to generate laughs just by how both they and the camera reacts to something.

The tension is felt between Hec and Ricky as they make their way through the wilderness and realize that their time in hiding is coming to a close. It is a testament to the performances of Dennison and Neill to feel the sadness of a boy who finally found some semblance of normalcy in his life (even when it includes trekking through the wilderness on the run from the authorities) and having to come to terms with the loss of it once again.

Waititi’s films have always been enamored with overcoming emotional obstacles to realize which path you must actually take and Wilderpeople seems to take this concept and apply it to both of its lead characters. The natural progression for Hec (who comes out of his shell and allows another person to engage in his life) and Ricky (who learns what it means to be true to oneself and chase your passions in life) feels earned and adds to the gratification of the audience by the end of the movie.

The film feels very much in the vein of the great road trip or summer movies where the ending of the trip or the season comes with great sadness and reflection. Hunt for the Wilderpeople never shies away from dealing with difficult topics, but reminds you that darkness does not have to lead to unhappiness.

It is bittersweet to know that Waititi’s next project will be for Marvel because that isn’t the path I necessarily want to see him taking. His films have a uniqueness that isolate you into a world wholly their own and that seems like it will be stipended in the world of Marvel. Regardless, Waititi has found his first true defining film in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a movie with empathy and adventure that reminds us of the joys of storytelling and being young.

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