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The iTunes 99 Cent Movie: ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.

This week, Sam Neill and Julian Dennison take to the bush-lands of New Zealand and become quasi folk heroes in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

There’s No-One Else Who Wants You, OK?

Perpetual foster kid Ricky Baker (Dennison) has never known a home. Or a real family. All he wants from life is to become a true gangsta like his hip hop idols. That begins to change when he arrives at his new foster home deep in the mountains of New Zealand. He quickly finds that his tough talk and rebellious ways aren’t going to play in The Bush. And that his new foster parents – the loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and crotchety Uncle Hec (Neill) – might just be the family he’s always wanted. When an unexpected tragedy threatens his new-found happiness, Ricky and his dog Tupac take to the wild lands rather than risk another foster home. In the process, he launches the hilarious and heartfelt adventure that is Hunt for the Wilderpeople.


I Didn’t Choose The Skuxx Life, The Skuxx Life Chose Me

And it is quite an adventure. Written and Directed by Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens as a tender family dramedy, then turns into a buddy comedy before becoming an outright action/survival saga. You’d be correct in thinking those genres don’t often compliment each other. But Waititi finds inventive ways  to blend elements of each throughout the film. That will come as no surprise to fans of Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. The director’s playful vampire mock-u-mentary was a much-needed shot in the arm to the oft maligned genre.

Of course, that film was all about the living dead. So it lacked a certain … humanity. With Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi puts humanity front and center. In this world, a wild pig attack can be tragic, bloody, and hilarious. An ill-constructed haiku can melt your heart while making you giggle. Fat jokes come with a kind-eyed wink and loving nudge. Mix those elements together and you get a first-class cinematic adventure with heart to spare and laughs galore. To call Hunt for the Wilderpeople a genre-mashup would be an understatement. Waititi’s film simply defies genre.

At the center of that film are a pair of performances that redefine comedic acting. As the tender-hearted but guarded Ricky, newcomer Julian Dennison often walks a fine line between charming lout and wounded soul. His first moments on-screen are silent and cynical. But there’s an unmistakeable kindness in his eyes … the wary innocence of a kid who’s spent his entire life in the system. You recognize that cynicism as stalwart desire for a normal life. You want things to work out for him. And you want to like Ricky even when he’s being a brat. Especially when he’s being a funny brat. Which is often.

Sam Neill’s Uncle Hec on the other hand, is not the feeling sort. Neill delivers a grizzled, monosyllabic performance that’s at once affectionate and off-putting. Hec is not a bad man. He’s actually a pretty good one. He’s just … closed off. As Hunt for the Wilderpeople progresses, Waititi meticulously peels back Hec’s layers to reveal the battered psyche underneath. With each passing moment a begrudging camaraderie with the young man at his side begins to show through … even if he’s never quite able to admit it. To watch Neill internalize that complex web of emotion without showing it is to know what acting truly is. And yes, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Still, as strong as those performances are, Dennison and Neill are not the stars of the show. No, the real star of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is New Zealand itself. DP Lachlan Milne lenses the wild, expansive Bushlands with a grandiosity that can only be described as … majestical. Trust me. Backed by a washy, hip-hop tinged score from synth-poppers Moniker, there is an undeniable majesty to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Both in scope and in story. What else can I say, except that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not at all the film that I expected. That’s the highest praise I can give a film. Well done all you crazy Wilderfolk.


Worth It?

You bet. Let’s be honest, 2016 has been a rough year. There hasn’t been much to laugh about in the world or in theaters. We could all use a little reassurance that things can still work out ok in the end. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is just the sort of film we need to remind us of that. It’s hopeful and heartbreaking and hilarious … often in the same breath. It’s absolutely worth your dollar this week. And it’s further proof that Taika Waititi is a director that you really should be watching. Especially since he’s helming next year’s Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel. Let’s hope he brings the same winking affection to that film. I think we can all admit that those Thor movies could use a little help.

FYI – if you’re looking to keep the laughs coming this week, the (other) $0.99 cent rental is Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some. Set on a college campus in the early ’80s, the film was tapped as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. It’s funny. It’s heartfelt. And surprisingly poignant. It’s Richard Linklater at his breezy best. And it’ll make a killer double-feature with Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

That’s two of the best films of the year for just two bucks. Maybe not quite enough to heal the wounds of this most bitter of years. But it may just take the edge off. At least for a few hours.

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