Thursday, July 21, 2016

The man, the myth, the surliness


An ecstatic little sojourn into the bush of New Zealand, Wilderpople turns out to be one of the funniest and most heartfelt comedies of 2016—not to mention the best kid's adventure flick since Wes Anderson made one.  And, for the cherry on top, it's also brought to life by a pair of actors whom we find operating at the very top of their game.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi (based on the book by Barry Crump)
With Julian Dennison (Ricky), Sam Neill (Hector), Rima Te Wiata (Bella), Rachel House (Paula), and Oscar Nightly (Officer Andy)

Spoiler alert: mild

Its 100% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes notwithstanding, I expect that your reaction to Hunt for the Wilderpeople shall rely crucially upon how much you adore the acting stylings of one particular man—namely, Sam Neill.  However, since my love for Neill is a love that I have loudly and proudly proclaimed upon this very blog every time I had the chance to do it, it shouldn't surprise you one bit that I also loved The Wilderpeople, in which Neill so gloriously stars.  Thus, while I watched it, it felt like the film's writer and director, Taika Waititi, had in fact been making a movie specifically and especially for me.  And, frankly, he kind of needed to: for my last and only previous experience with Waititi's style was What We Do In the Shadows, which, given my own muted reaction to that film's half-assed charms, I suppose I have to assume was a movie made specifically and especially for everyone except me.

Well, The Wilderpeople is a comedy, too—oh, it's other things: a coming-of-age tale, a buddy adventure, a chase film, a highly oblique character study, and, yes, a somewhat cliche-ridden machine for making you feel feelings, though you might not notice how mechanical it can be until it starts to deflate at the end, right around the time the film somewhat clumsily stumbles over its own climax—but its chief operating mode is that of an endearingly-twee indy-comedy, that marries some genuine heart with a brand of blatantly cartoonish buffoonery that, thankfully, only occasionally proves to be particularly distracting (and still manages to be enjoyable, even when it is distracting).

It shaves just enough of the shagginess out of Waititi's previous feature to function as a proper narrative; but it also leaves just enough in, to still feel quite appealingly spontaneous and weird.  So, for almost all of its runtime, Waititi manages his superb balancing act, between the apparent psychological reality of our heroes, on the one hand, and the complete unreality that attaches to every other human they wind up encountering, on the other.  Meanwhile, even the ending isn't exactly bad; rather, you can just feel the film's energy leaking away, with nobody trying to stop it.  Yet maybe there was never any way around that.  To indulge in a cliche of my own, Wilderpeople is much more about its journey than its destination.

Our tale begins with Ricky, a troubled and self-evidently unathletic young man who has presently landed in the lap of two new foster parents, Bella and Hector, a farming couple who appear to have carved their homestead directly from the bush itself.  He's presented to Bella by his case worker, Paula, alongside a litany of his sins: truancy; loitering; vandalism of many various types.  (But it's related to the audience with a flash of amusing, quick-cut images; and that's how we are immediately clued into the tone—which is a gracious and canny gesture on Waititi's part, given that we could've read this introduction to the boy as bad social issues drama instead, rather than the slightly-sharp comedy it's actually intended to be.)

Ricky doesn't easily take to these new environs, but Bella, against all his expectations (and perhaps against our own), turns out to be an exceptionally strong and affectionate mother figure; and soon enough Ricky settles in, finally accepting Bella as his "aunt" and her grotesquely-tacky farmhouse as his real and permanent home.  Well, you know what that means.  It's time for Bella to bite the dust—because this movie definitely isn't about Ricky living happily with his new maternal guardian, whilst Neill skulks around in the background, being actively indifferent toward him.

And so Bella's death leaves Ricky with nobody but old Hec—and Hec makes it extremely, upsettingly clear that he never wanted any foster child in the first damned place, so if Ricky will just kindly vacate himself back to whence he came, Hec would be a whole lot happier, since he's in the process of preparing to deal with all his repressed grief by walking out into the New Zealand jungle and, in all probability, never coming back.  Ricky, not eager to return to the care of the State, runs off and fakes his death instead—in the cutest, most ineffectual way he possibly could, mind you, while also still managing to burn down a barn—and Hec is therefore compelled to find him.  This he does almost instantly, because Hec's an experienced bushman, something we've been extremely aware of since his self-consciously mythic first appearance, wherein he crests a hill, slouch hat first, with the 200-pound wild boar he's killed for supper, borne easily upon his back.

Unfortunately, in the process of recovering the lad, Hec breaks his ankle.  He stays put and heals, and Ricky stays with him, learning the basics of wilderness survival in the process. In the meantime, however, Paula and the authorities have come to the conclusion that Hec has gone crazy, kidnapped the boy, and is quite possibly doing some terribly unnatural things to him; and thus, with Hec now unable to return to civilization, and Ricky still unwilling, they dive ever deeper into the jungle, along with their respective canine friends, Zag and Tupac, while an increasingly-unhinged Paula (supported by her increasingly-unhinged New Zealand police state), heedlessly pursue.

But shall our heroes learn to care for one another, as a father might for a son?  Oh, you have seen a movie before!  Congratulations!

The greatness of Wilderpeople is, of course, not very much in the plot (though it's a perfectly solid plot); it's in the details—the jokes, the pacing, the mood of it all.  But more than anything, it's in those performances: dear Lord, it's a Sam Neill vehicle where you can make a reasonable argument that Sam Neill isn't actually giving the best performance.

Now, let's not get stupid here; this is not my argument.  And yet Julian Dennison holds his own, so it's either the best child performance of the year, or I'll eat my damn hat.  First, the kid is simply extraordinarily funny, and while this is surely because Waititi has fed him a whole lot of extraordinarily funny things to say and do, it's Dennison's timing that makes it happen.  But just saying that Dennison is "funny" leaves the most important part out: sure, it's Waititi's material and Waititi's style that drives Wilderpeople's comedy, but it's Dennison alone who actually grounds Ricky's slightly-airheaded silliness in something legitimately believable, namely his pitch-perfect evocation of a dreamy imagination rooted in the fertilizer of pop culture detritus and adolescent vainglory—such as you might quite readily find in any real 13 year old weirdo whose life has trained him to hate the world, and who therefore ignores as much of it as a human being possibly can.  There's only one false note in the whole performance—though I hasten to add this isn't Dennison's fault.  Instead, it's simply a manifestation of the reality of a cheap indy comedy's production schedule.  Here it is: it slightly beggars belief that Ricky doesn't lose a lot more weight than he actually does, as he hikes across New Zealand for five whole months.  On the other hand, if you're going into The Wilderpeople, and expecting Cast Away, then that's probably your fault.

And then... there's Neill.  And Neill does what Neill has always done best: be the most loveable jerk on Planet Earth.  Once again, we find Neill's easily-riled manner is ever-so-slightly more sympathetic than threatening; and, once again, all of Neill's unguarded reactions to the people his character can barely stand turn out to be a truly bottomless well of hilarity.

Now, I can't say that it's Neill's best performance ever.  Yet there's very little doubt in my mind that Hec must be Neill's most adorable character.  A simple, perhaps even simple-minded man, and locked almost entirely within a certain brand of self-reliant, self-isolating masculinity, what we get with Hec is an ingeniously tragicomic figure, whose alienation is so complete after his wife's death that you somehow actually wind up rooting for this sourpussed old man more than you do his cherubic ward (whom he mostly tends to yell at if he's talking to him at all).  But, like I said, Waititi already assumes your appreciation of Neill's particular skillset when you buy your ticket; and that's how, for roughly the whole first act, even before the comic jungle adventure begins in earnest, I got dagger eyes from my girlfriend every time I cracked up at a reaction shot or a grumbled-out line, while the rest of the theater—including her, sadly—remained as silent as the grave.

But don't you dare blame me.  Waititi and his cinematographer Lachlan Milne sure as hell knew what they were up to.  Marvel, then, at how they paint Neill into their film, confining his inimitable glower within a whole heap of harsh and half-Expressionist shadows—often even blocking him out of the light entirely, right into the darkened corners of the frame.  It probably ought to make the man seem outright dangerous; with another actor, maybe it even would've.  But Waititi knows what he's got in Neill, and the man's inveterate bitterness is frankly scintillating: just over-the-top enough to reach wacky; real enough that when the time comes for Wilderpeople to sell the loss and the hurt that you just know Hec has to feel, Neill delivers these all-powerful emotions with a herculean reserve that only really makes you pity him all the more.  Best of all, it always remains completely of a piece, no matter how goofy the movie might have been just a few moments earlier.  (And, naturally, it would tear the movie apart if Neill and Dennison didn't work together; luckily, they do, each one feeding off the other's peculiar energy in a most wonderful way.)

Still, all this talk about the performances tends to undersell everything else that Wilderpeople has going for it; I mentioned Milne's interiors, but let's not avoid talking about the exteriors.  It's not necessarily a triumph to make New Zealand look good, but they're just beautiful, effortlessly representing the freedom and terror of the wilds our heroes now call home.  Meanwhile, you've got Waititi and his team of three editors, finding ways to make things funny just by the way they're cut—and wisely staying out of the way when the film shifts its gears into full-on sentiment.  (But then, Waititi's editors want you to notice the living shit out of how they emphasize the passage of days and weeks, with a whole host of splendid hidden wipes and weird superimpositions.)

Then, of course, there's that fascinatingly idiosyncratic soundtrack—you know, for a movie about a character who loves rap music, it's pretty clear that the filmmaker's tastes run at a complete right angle to his hero's.  But anyway, the esoteric soundscape might be enough to remind you of just how much of a debt Waititi owes Wes Anderson.  If not, then his penchant for power-zooms, the vague sensation of magical realism, the sharp veers into melancholy, and the even sharper lurches into completely-unexpected hyper-violence almost certainly will.  (Nature is a murder machine, my friend, and don't you ever forget it.)  Of course, there's also the film's central storybook conceit—Christ, it has onscreen chapter headings and everything—which, in this particular instance, doesn't actually amount to Goddamned anything, so you start to wonder why anybody ever thought it was a good idea.  But that's a minor gripe; and there's certainly no crime in working in an Andersonian register when you also do it this well.  Besides, Waititi distinguishes his film, after all: most obviously, you'll probably never confuse Wilderpeople for a color-coordinated diorama.  (Well, actually, considering the red and blue plaids sported by Ricky and Hec, set off against an endless sea of New Zealand green, there is a chance you might.  It's clever costuming, in any event.)

But, more subtly (and more importantly), The Hunt for the Wilderpeople also punches straight through its quiet, abiding sadness; and when it reaches the other side, it finds something vastly more optimistic than Anderson typically does at the end of his depressive pseudo-comedies.  (Of course, what Wilderpeople resembles the most in the Anderson canon is Moonrise Kingdom, with romantic themes swapped out for filial ones; and Moonrise Kingdom manages to spare quite a bit of optimism for its adolescent leads, even if, in true Andersonian style, it doesn't quite so readily grant much to any of its cast of actual grown-ups.)

I'm in danger of losing the thread here, so let's just say this: Waititi's at least as interested in the hope we can find in this world and in each other.  It's a beautiful thing to see, because even if you have seen it a hundred times before, you haven't often seen it done with this much sincerity, let alone with this much verve.

Score:  10/10

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