The coming-of-age tale, the on-the-run road movie, the buddy comedy, the boy’s adventure story — all genres that require a steady hand and a singular sensibility, and all of which you’ll find in Taika Waititi’s goofy, giddy mash-up about two fugitives fleeing authorities in the New Zealand bush. The fact that one half of this criminal couple is a troubled, chubby Maori foster kid named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, a deadpan delight) suggests tough-love bromides are on deck. (Thanks to the lad’s infatuation with urban rebels, some no-brainer pop culture references as well: His new dog is immediately christened “Tupac.”) The other outlaw is his “uncle,” a crusty old outdoorsman who answers to Hec (Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill) and wants little to do with his wife’s adopted addition to the household. Boom! You’ve got your tried-and-true mismatch. The unreachable irresistible force versus the cantankerous immovable object — it’s not a question of if these defensive icebergs will melt so much as when.
Even if viewers don’t know the source material — Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress — they’ll know the bonding is inevitable, especially once circumstances force Ricky and Hec into the wild with a Javert-like child-services worker (Rachel House) in pursuit. The only mystery is how Hunt for the Wilderpeople will handle the journey, and the instinct is to brace for feel-good impact. Waititi tends to go for either overbaked silliness like 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark or the undercooked sappiness of 2010’s my-dysfunctional-childhood parable Boy. (The major outlier is What We Do in the Shadows, a 2014 collaboration with Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement that instantly established itself as the greatest vampire mockumentary ever.) He’s splitting the difference here, ping-ponging between self-conscious ridiculousness and a sort of heartstring-molesting melodrama, with the occasional Wes Anderson-ish fussiness — dig those fancy-font chapter titles — and tense boar attack thrown in for good measure.
But Waititi also knows there’s a unique groove to be found in the middle of all of this, and when the movie syncs up everything from its auteur’s facility for sight gags to the actors’ impressive young-fuck-up-meets-old-fart chemistry, Wilderpeople generates enough good will to make the stalest of plot devices feel semi-fresh. A little bit of left-of-center humor in a funeral sermon on Jesus and junk food (delivered by Waititi himself as a daffy local priest) makes up for a lot of forced quirk; an innate sense of knowing when to back off from being overtly crowd-pleasing balances out some obvious detours into crowd-pandering à la not-one-but-two of Ricky’s “Shit just got real!” exclamations. For all the stock elements thrown into this indie-cutie gumbo, it’s still flavorful enough to stand out — an oddball and oddly affecting take on two misfits finding their metaphorical partner-in-crime match.