by Decky Donohoe
An odyssey of Kiwi proportions, it feels good to be back in Taika Waititi’s off-beat, comedic bosom once more. The story of Wilderpeople centres around Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his foster family, comprising of caring and sweet Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the cantankerous Uncle Hec (a scruffy Sam Neill) as they try and create a stable, family atmosphere for the young reprobate. When Ricky’s constant running away finds him lost in the bush, Uncle Hec follows him and a series of unfortunate events see them become outlaws and, eventually, celebrities.
The wild bush of West Auckland sees the most ambitious shoot of Waititi’s sterling career. The Thor: Ragnorok director compares it to The Revenant in interviews and certainly marks a huge leap in his efforts. The story of Wilderpeople is deep and deeply affecting, mirroring the heart in his 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and very tautly executed. The set up gives us a central character who is a victim of his surroundings and not used to the fleeting affection afforded by his kindly, new aunty. His 80’s throwback, pink bedroom is an axle for the themes; dressed with love against an ill-advised décor. The efforts are genuine and choking back a tear at the hot water bottle scene is mandatory. But seriously, a pink bedroom?
Yet the protagonist of the story, the one whose arc resonates deepest, is uncle Hec. A gruff and world weary wanderer who has been taken in by Bella, much like Ricky and the stray dogs they have at the farm house. Sam Neill provides a performance worthy of being at the heart of this tale and his warming to Ricky never feels obligatory or forced. And Julian Dennison is not, in fact a real bad egg. He’s quite a talented wee egg in fact. Check out his solo dance moves at mid-point to see his confidence on screen and taking into account his newcomer status, it’s not a shallow performance overall. Rachel House as the social worker provides some of the best laughs, her odd couple pairing with a harmless cop give a brief, antagonistic drive to the story which does not seem overly necessary. Gladly though, they don’t overstay their welcome.
I think mainly I’m struck by the set up. This is the guy who directed Eagle Vs Shark, directing a touching, family drama in a Revenant-esque shoot in the harsh countryside, from a script that he adapted himself. There’s tremendous maturity here and my own personal man-crush and bias aside, Waititi has made commendable efforts to prove his own depth as a story teller. Let’s just put Thor:3 out of our minds (did I mention I hate comic book films?) and chalk it up to a fleeting, Peter Berg style selling out for the fat paycheque (seriously who wouldn’t?).
Maybe we are too cynical towards the Hollywood blockbuster behemoth but rather than fade into artistic obscurity (Ahem, P.T Anderson), what we have here is a last hoorah to remember Taika’s roots and who he is; a final push towards what he is meant to be before he sells all for a big directing credit. Let’s take it as security that he will remain a story-teller in our lives for another while yet.
No-one chooses the skux life.
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