FILM REVIEW: An odd couple in the woods in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Veteran Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison play a mismatched pair in this comedy from the director of "What We Do in the Shadows"

I managed to start watching “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” without really knowing too much about it, which is fairly rare for me. It played at Sundance in January when I was there, but I didn’t see it, though I recall a general sense of positive buzz. I knew it was New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s follow-up to the vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” which was one of the funniest films of last year. And I knew it starred a bearded Sam Neill and some sort of pudgy kid. That was about it.

If that’s enough info for you, and you’re willing to trust my judgment, you can stop reading after the next sentence. “Wilderpeople” is a completely delightful, brilliantly odd little comedy that’ll make you feel like “Napoleon Dynamite” might have if that movie had been made with a little more heart.

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople"

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

OK, some of you want more. That’s fair. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a parentless juvenile delinquent who gets dropped off one day by a child services worker at his new foster home, an isolated shack where the welcoming, maternal Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, the curmudgeonly Hector (Neill), reside. Ricky doesn’t want to be there, and Hector definitely doesn’t want him there, but they achieve a sort of détente before long.

Events conspire, however, to get the two of them lost in the forest, and saddling Hector with a broken ankle. As weeks go by, they become the objects of a manhunt, with Ricky desperate to avoid being sent back to juvie and Hector increasingly worried that he’s suspected of abducting the boy. They encounter some inept hunters as well as a loony hermit called Psycho Sam, played by Rhys Darby (the manager in “Flight of the Conchords” and a memorable werewolf in “What We Do in the Shadows”).

Mostly, though, this is a two-man show, and the chemistry between the deadpan duo of teenaged Dennison and 68-year-old Neill is solid. In true “Punky Brewster” form, their initial mutual hostility gradually erodes into respect and then affection, but the sentiment never feels unearned or sappy. “Wilderpeople” might not have quite the laugh-out-loud, cult-classic appeal of “Shadows,” but the one-two punch of these offbeat comedies marks Waititi as New Zealand’s leading filmmaker.

(101 minutes, PG-13, opens Friday, June 15 at Cinema 21) GRADE: B+

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