To set the stage here, Taika Waititi‘s What We Do in the Shadows was an absolute comedic masterpiece and is one of my favorite films of all time. I’ve seen it probably twenty times since its US release last year, and it has some of the most quotable comedic gold I’ve ever witnessed. It has a special features outtakes reel that’s pretty much the length of the movie. It’s a fabulous, fabulous film.

So imagine my excitement when I saw that Waititi’s next film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, has now landed on Yankee screens (albeit, as usual, in limited release). I avoided all trailers and synopses — not needed, no sir! — and sat down anticipating a fresh dose of his trademark rapid-fire brilliant humor.

There was none. Or rather, very little. Turns out I really should have watched a few trailers, because Wilderpeople is a very different film — and a supremely good one, so long as you’re in the right mood for it and have some sense what to expect. So I’ll do you the favor I didn’t do myself, and give you, gentle readers, some sense what to expect.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is (only) part comedy. The rest? Part coming of age film (Moonrise Kingdom?), part noisy gruesome wilderness struggles, and part Thelma-and-Louise-style outlaw run. There’s a definite Wes Anderson bent to its oh-so-studied quirk.

The protagonists are a very husky young foster child (Ricky, Julian Dennison) and a gruff, standoffish outdoorsman (Hec, a barely recognizable Sam Neill). They’re an odd pair, for sure. For the first act, I found them downright depressing and hard to watch. But they warm up, and by the end, they’re great.

The story is cut into chapters, and opens with a stoic but blinged-out Ricky being deposited at his new, ramshackle, rural foster home; he takes a while settling in, but ultimately does so thanks to the frank kindness of his foster mum Bella (Rima Te Wiata). But when things take a turn, Ricky and Hec must flee to the bush, prompting a massive manhunt. Herein follows a strange, sometimes comedic, often poignant adventure tale. The duo hide from authorities, camp out, wear Rambo-esque headbands, and encounter various friends and foes along the way. And each encounter changes them somehow, driving the pair to know and to love the wild freedom of being on the lam in the Kiwi bush.

This could be a recipe for empty fluff comedy, but in this director’s hands it’s most certainly not. Waititi mines his characters deep, drilling them hard for emotion in what turns out to be a surprisingly heartfelt picture about unlikely friendship (and even less likely hardships). Sure, it has its over the top moments — Waititi’s own cameo as a priest, the always-excellent Rhys Darby as a conspiracy nutter, and the grand, take-that-Hollywood denouement — but it’s a movie that repeatedly challenges the audience to look deeper.

Haus Verdict: Weaned so thoroughly on his vampire mockumentary masterstroke, I was expecting pure howlers here. I didn’t get many. But if you know what’s coming, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an eminently memorable, zany, raw, offbeat, and lovable film. See it.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is out now, limited.

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