New Zealand isn't known as a hotbed of regional film production. But this country of 4.4 million people recently found its top native filmmaker in the unlikely form of 40-year-old comedian and actor Taika Waititi.
A longtime comedy collaborator of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie — best known as the semi-fictional band Flight of the Conchords from the HBO series of the same name — Waititi fell into filmmaking when a short film he made for the 48 Hour Film Project was nominated for an Academy Award. His second feature, Boy, became the most successful homegrown film ever in New Zealand, at least until the endearingly warm and funny Hunt for the Wilderpeople smashed all box office records for regional films in that country.
Hunt For the Wilderpeople's kiwi pedigree is near complete — Waititi based his screenplay on Wild Pork and Watercress, the 1986 novel by famed New Zealand outdoorsman and literary lion Barry Crump. The film also stars fourth-generation kiwi Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), who reportedly was eager to return to his roots via the film. But Wilderpeople's appeal transcends international boundaries. A surprise hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it's a feel-good movie for indie film fans accustomed to grittier fare.
Thirteen-year-old orphan and perennial "bad egg" Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) finds his latest foster home at the rural farm owned by big-hearted Bella (Rima Ti Wiata) and quietly cantankerous old Hec (a grey-bearded, barely recognizable Neill). An unexpected event spurs Ricky to run away from home and into the vast wilderness and endless beauty of the New Zealand bush. Hec follows, as does a series of mishaps that turns the two of them into celebrity fugitives. It's like Thelma and Louise as directed by Wes Anderson if he'd made films in the 1970s.
There's a free-spirited quality to Wilderpeople that's hard to resist. It's unencumbered by grand statements or high expectations and manages a delicate balance between humor and drama. It's about family and friendship and finding your place in the world even when you're not like everyone else, and it makes those familiar themes appear new. It's no accident that the film is divided into chapters in a way that recalls children's books. In a better world, Wilderpeople would have kids lining up at the mall for repeat viewings — no princesses or talking animals required.
Like many emotionally gratifying films, Wilderpeople spends much of its time and energy developing its characters. Neill and Dennison make a wonderfully unlikely, generations-spanning pair, but a series of equally memorable supporting characters and cast keep things humming. (A series of well-chosen, mood-changing songs on the soundtrack also helps.) Waititi has one hilarious scene playing a rhetorically challenged minister presiding over a sparse and deeply unimpressed congregation.
The international success of Waititi's film already has brought the director to Hollywood to make the next Thor movie, due in 2017. It's a long way from the wilds of New Zealand to the Marvel Universe, but Wilderpeople leaves no reason to doubt Waititi's Hollywood potential.