One of the nicest surprises at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — at least, if you’re not familiar with New Zealand director Taika Waititi (soon to direct Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok) — has been Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an alternately conventional and peculiar feature that plays out like a Kiwi variation on a Wes Anderson fable. Reminiscent of Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, Waititi’s follow-up to last year’s vampire-reality-show comedy What We Do in the Shadows is a deranged coming-of-age adventure about a young delinquent prone to expressing himself via haiku.
Ricky (Julian Dennison), an overweight foster kid with thug-life aspirations, is compelled by child protective services’ Paula (Rachel House) to live with cheery farmer Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff husband, Hec (Sam Neill) — Hec first appears carrying a hog on his back as Paula’s cop escort remarks, “He’s giving that pig a piggyback!” Ricky quickly warms to Bella, thanks partly to the hot-water bottle she sticks in his bed every night. However, no sooner has he accepted her as his new “auntie” — and received a dog from her that he dubs “Tupac” — than she dies, leaving him alone with scruffy, surly Hec, desperate to avoid re-entering the foster system.
Ricky fakes his own death and flees into the bush, and he and Hec, considered fugitives, soon become national news items (complete with Hec slandered as a “pervert”). Much hunting, chasing, bickering, and bonding ensues, and while Waititi’s tale (based on Barry Crumps’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress) is destined for an upbeat ending, the path it charts to that conclusion is uniquely strange, told with crossfades, off-kilter compositions, random fantasy sequences, deadpan edits, and a cheeky Eighties-style synth score. The picturesque material becomes downright dreamlike.
Neil proves compellingly gruff as a reluctant father figure, though it’s the trash-talking, family-craving ten-year-old Dennison who steals the show, exuding a wacko, wounded attitude rooted in Ricky’s backwoods Rambo–Scarface–Mad Max reveries. Hunt for the Wilderpeople elevates its sentimental formula through weird, wonderful personality, plus amusing one-liners from not only its leads but a paranoid psycho (Rhys Darby) and an odd pastor (Waititi, delivering the funniest funeral sermon in recent memory).
By contrast, there’s practically no compelling life present in Haute Cuisine director Christian Vincent’s Courted. This French import details a court case — about a man accused of kicking his seven-month-old daughter to death — presided over by a judge named Racine (Fabrice Luchini) who’s loathed by his colleagues. Flu-plagued and irritable, Racine is disarmed when one of the jurors turns out to be Ditte (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an anesthesiologist who cared for him after he was injured in an accident years earlier — and with whom he fell madly in love.
Their rekindled relationship turns out to be a go-nowhere plot strand, but it’s no more tiresome than the rest of the visually inert Courted, a drama superficially engaged with issues of perception (mainly via lots of judgmental chatter about how people are dressed) while proving primarily concerned with having numerous figures explain, in great detail, the logistics of the French legal system. It’s an informational civics lesson masquerading as an actual movie.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Playing April 20-22 at the Tribeca Film Festival