Georgie de Mattos/ Mustang News

Looking back, there’s no mistake about it — Summer 2016 was, for lack of a better word, painful for big-budget releases. While some blockbusters like “Suicide Squad” grossed in the hundreds of millions, they tended to receive mixed reviews at best and didn’t even come close
to expectations.

Then there was the unmitigated circus that was the “Ghostbusters” reboot. Instead of renewing interest in a cult classic franchise, it alienated longtime fans and flopped in spectacular fashion after a heavy marketing campaign, making a sequel with the new cast unlikely.

In general, 2016 hasn’t been easy on any movies. When something like “Norm of the North” is one of the first movies released in the year, you know that something went horribly wrong in the film industry.

Since mediocrity and disappointment were rampant with big-budget releases, it was up to smaller, lesser-known films to carry audiences through the desolate summer months.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” written and directed by Taika Waititi, is one of these films, grossing little more than five million at the box office (it is, however, one of the most successful New Zealand films of all time). Though it has cliches and tropes that have been done to death, it’s still able to separate itself as a weird, beautiful piece of work that doesn’t drag on. By the end, you won’t want it to end.

Following his obsession with being a gang member, the nearly 13-year-old delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is sent by child protective services to live with his new foster mother Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) in the country. Slowly, Ricky begins to accept his new life. After tragedy strikes, Ricky flees into the wild New Zealand bush with his dog Tupac and Hec in pursuit, in an effort to escape child protective services and the maniacal child welfare worker Paula (Rachel House). As months pass, the two become the target of a national manhunt.

Though it has cliche circumstances with polar opposites bickering with each other, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” perfectly develops the relationship between Ricky and Hec. The dynamic is similar to that of Carl and Russell from “Up,” but with Ricky being the driving force behind the story. The transformation of Ricky and Hec’s relationship from antagonistic to familial feels real. After Hec is injured, the two are forced to interact with each other. Waititi makes these scenes feel authentic, allowing for character growth. It’s not only the writing for these two. Dennison and Neill, who played Dr. Grant in “Jurassic Park”, are both amazing in their roles. Both are able to provide for their character’s wide range of emotions.

While “Up”  is a film about being able to let go of the past, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a classic coming of age story. The growth of Ricky’s relationship with Hec, while important, isn’t the only focus of the film; Ricky’s character arc is just as developed and meaningful. When Ricky first arrives at Bella’s house, he grimaces, horrified as she slaughters a wild pig. After months pass, however, he is able to survive in the wild New Zealand bush and confronts a wild boar himself. While he was timid and reluctant at first, he often takes matters into his own hands in the bush and faces off against authorities in the climax without hesitation. Though the climax of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is unrealistic and over-the-top, it’s still exciting and doesn’t take you out of the film. You’re able to suspend disbelief because of your investment in Ricky and Hec after watching them grow.

While the lead characters are memorable, the characters that only play a small role are also hard to forget. Near the beginning of the film, Waititi plays the role of a minister who gives one of the most hilarious, and worst, eulogies of all time. This mix of a somber mood with a comedic touch is prevalent throughout the film. Even though “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” sometimes deals with heavy and dark topics, Waititi is able to insert a lighthearted mood into it.

Other side characters are memorable because they effect Ricky and Hec in some way. TK and his daughter Kahu provide a way for Ricky discover his fame. Instead of turning him over, TK is starstruck when meeting him, asking for a selfie. Another memorable side character is Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby). After narrowly escaping the authorities, Ricky and Hec are discovered by the eccentric hermit, fascinated with conspiracy theories, who shelters them.
The fast pace of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” works for most of the film. At times, however, there are scenes after a tragedy where some sort of reflection would be expected, but Ricky’s and Hec’s reactions are often minuscule and these scenes feel like they should be longer. While Waititi often injects humor into almost all scenes, these scenes lose a sense of somberness not because of humor, but because they should be longer and give time for the two to show emotion and reflect on
these events.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a good example of how there is value in indie filmmaking. The long, excruciating summer of 2016 had too many lowlights and disappointments. Thanks to Waititi, the this past summer went from the worst thing ever to not completely awful. Although he’s made his fame from indie works, Waititi will soon enter the world of big-budget films, directing “Thor: Ragnarok.” Hopefully he’ll be able to rub off on
other directors.

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