Alex Casey is a staff writer for New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Movie review: The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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A scene from the movie, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directed by Taika Waititi.
A scene from the movie, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directed by Taika Waititi.

There is no more joyful experience than hearing the word "skux" uttered by a New Zealander on a big cinema screen. This year we have Hunt for the Wilderpeople to thank for that, the new instant classic piece of New Zealand film from director Taika Waititi. Based on the Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress, it's an exuberant adventure that pays homage to New Zealand film classics while avoiding the tendency to plunge into the darkness of the New Zealand psyche.

It doesn't take much to realise that New Zealand film has long trended towards the gloomy. Wilderpeople's own star Sam Neill made a whole documentary about it in Cinema of Unease. From Vigil to Rain, Scarfies and Black Sheep, we have traditionally loved to wallow in the darker recesses of life in this weird little corner of the world.

Our ominous landscape, and the shifty folk (and/or Ringwraiths) within it, too, have long been seen as a constant source of fascination and threat.

Honestly, after just one New Zealand film paper at university, I felt about ready to be mauled by Mt Albert itself.

Thank goodness this attitude has balanced out in more recent years. I've shrieked at the splattery mess of Deathgasm, performed a small, terrible jig in my seat during Born to Dance and guffawed my way through everything Taika Waititi has ever laid a finger on. In the style of Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi presents a New Zealand that refuses to wallow in the mud, instead rolling around in it gleefully and eventually starting a mud fight that might just end in a car chase.

When a foster child (played by a standing ovation-worthy Julian Dennison) and his new "father" (Sam Neill, gruffer than you may have ever seen him) go missing in the bush, the nation is united in its pursuit for the two runaways.

With a legendary cast including Rhys Darby, Stan Walker, Rachel House and Oscar Kightley, the film blends farcical caper with more factual realities about life in rural New Zealand. Anyone who has ever lived in a cold villa on the edge of the world will know the comfort of someone reminding you that there's a hottie in your bed.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople skilfully balances its New Zealand feel with global, pop-culture packed references. I'm sure that's what led to it being a Sundance smash.

Video

Paula from child services, among many ridiculous claims, cites Sarah Connor of The Terminator as a touchstone while fighting her way through the native bush. Peppered with these moments are what feel like distinctly New Zealand totems, from a wild John Campbell cameo, to a tongue-in-cheek Lord of the Rings nod, to Ricky wearing those hoodies that the cool kids wore at intermediate, the ones that zipped all the way over their heads.

I left the cinema feeling pretty confident that I had just seen my favourite New Zealand film. Its whackiness and borderline fantasy might not be for everyone, but there's a universal, childlike appeal to the story that feels too powerful to deny.

With nuanced performances from actors playing characters who range from the grouchy old man down the road to a priest who might actually be from space, it feels like a truly unique film, and one that could only be made here. Listening to the audience clap and cheer for a joyous, distinctly New Zealand story, I realised that's about the most skux thing I can think of.

Showing now, rated PG

- Spy.co.nz

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