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The Hunt for Wilderpeople

New Zealander Taika Waititi scores with this fresh, offbeat coming-of-age comedy

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Films like The Hunt for Wilderpeople give me hope: There is still life in the dusty, cliché-laden, coming-of-age genre. It’s possible to make a film that is laugh-out-loud funny, touching without being sappy, and featuring actors who look like real people. (Yes, I know the beautiful hurt too, but those highly glossed folks can be distancing.)

Fresh from the other side of the world comes this slightly offbeat feature from New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows). Here he adapts Barry Crumb’s novel about a couple of misfits who make a run for it in the forest.

Ricky (Julian Dennison), a lumpy 12-year-old swaddled in hip-hop mall clothing, is dropped off at his new foster home — a ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere — by a social worker, who pegs him as “a real bad egg.” His new “auntie” is warm and kind, but his new Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) has little interest in nurturing. A change in circumstances causes Ricky and Hec to “go bush.” With few supplies, they head into the forest, along with Ricky’s dog, Tupac, while a national manhunt fires up to find them.

The film unfolds from Ricky’s perspective, who naturally treats being on the run as part inconvenience (no toilet paper) and part awesome, like the action movies he namechecks. It’s a classic mismatched-buddy road trip through some gorgeous unspoiled spaces. Along the way, Ricky and Hec have to learn to work together, while each fiercely keeps up the pretense of wanting to be left alone. (“Welcome to Rickytown, population Ricky.”)

Hunt is full of humor, much of it deliciously dry, but it doesn’t shy away from the sadness that informs the pair’s journey. It manages to be pleasingly sentimental and refreshingly unsentimental at the same time; it helps that the two main characters, while decent fellows, have zero interest in being touchy-feely. Note: In classic he-man style, they take to the wilderness to sort out their problems.

Toward the end, the story gets a bit frantic, relying more on bumbling cops and an action sequence. The film’s strongest moments are when Waititi deftly balances the sad-sweet nature of the story. The irrepressible Ricky is prone to terrible haikus — a coping skill a former counselor taught him. His casual use of therapy jargon sketches out in an unhappy childhood spent in care (though a real bad egg wouldn’t have listened), while his clumsy gangsta affectations barely mask his aching desire to be wanted. Ricky is fond of explaining “I didn’t choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me.” And it turns out the outlaw life is just what this sweet, goofy kid needs.

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