Hunt for this crazy gem from New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows). Certain to be eclipsed by big-budget sequels like the latest Ice Age and Star Trek installments, it will require driving the extra mile but reward your effort many times over. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is very likely the summer's most magical film.
It's unlike anything I've seen. Based on a book by Barry Crump, the picture is a thoroughly winning combination of the comic, tragic and surreal, with just a touch of Wes Anderson whimsy.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a 13-year-old butterball enamored of gangsta culture. As the movie opens, he's driven deep into the Kiwi bush by child welfare agent Paula Hall (Rachel House), who brings him to the last in a long line of foster homes. The movie is divided into 10 chapters. The title of this one: "A Real Bad Egg."
At first, Ricky is sullen and closed off. He even runs away the first night in his new home. Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has little trouble cracking his shell, however. She jokes the following morning, when Ricky awakes in a field, "I'm amazed we found you. You made it almost 200 meters" — and then invites him back for pancakes. "Have breakfast. Then you can run away." Confronted with such love and acceptance, Ricky soon drops the thug act (though, when Bella gives him a pet dog, the boy names him Tupac).
Then something shockingly awful happens. Ricky discovers Bella's grumpy husband, Hec (Sam Neill), wailing in primal anguish over her lifeless body. It's a sound you won't soon forget, extraordinarily raw and real. If you didn't perceive that Waititi isn't telling a typical coming-of-age story before, you do now.
Ricky realizes the state plans to reclaim him and send him to juvenile prison. (His "crimes," according to Hall, include spitting and kicking stuff.) So he makes for the mountains with his dog and a bag of sandwiches. Knowing the boy will get lost in the vast bushlands — gorgeously shot by Lachlan Milne — Hec tracks him down and teaches him how to survive in the forest. I don't believe I've seen a movie in which more wild boars are killed. It becomes a running joke after a while.
Predictably, the two do bond, but in a way that never feels forced or sentimental. They're united by their grief over Bella's loss. Neither their pain nor their friendship ever feels less than movingly credible.
When the walkabout stretches to five months, suspicions are raised about what a 60-year-old man could be up to in the woods with a teenage boy, and a manhunt ensues. This twist leads to some extremely weird and funny business. House proves a hoot and a half as the overzealous child welfare worker. She's the Kiwi Melissa McCarthy.
The climactic face-off between the fugitives and an over-the-top contingent of authorities and police is worth the price of admission. Ricky's impulse, of course, is to go out in a blaze of glory "like Scarface" — and, to his credit, the filmmaker doesn't entirely discourage him.
How do you know an indie director has made a miracle of a movie, full of original twists, absurdist touches, unforgettable performances and dialogue that's music to your ears? Easy. Hollywood hires him away. Savor every quirky second of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It's Waititi's farewell as an oddball auteur. The next time you see his work on screen, it'll be Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, and you'll doubtless have to hunt for the slightest sign of the wacked-out talent that landed Waititi the gig.