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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has directed the two highest grossing pictures in his homeland and yet evaded the slippery grasp of Hollywood. That will change next year with his stewardship of the Marvel Comics' blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok starring Chris Hemsworth. Before the relentless onslaught of bombastic digital effects, Waititi writes and directs this uproarious adaptation of Barry Crump's coming-of-age novel, Wild Pork And Watercress. His snappy script retains a similar structure of 10 chapters and an epilogue, which neatly bookmark the characters' turbulent journey of self-discovery into pithy vignettes. The writer-director's offbeat, bone dry sense of humour, which served him well as a writer for Flight Of The Conchords, delivers big laughs like when the central double-act - a 60-something grouch and a 13-year-old boy - go on the run from police and are exhausted after a few sprinting steps. "We don't need to run," pants the old timer. "Let's just fast walk," agrees his wheezing sidekick. The endearing relationship between the mismatched fugitives, portrayed with razor sharp comic timing by Sam Neill and Julian Dennison, energises every glorious frame. Thirteen-year-old tearaway Ricky (Dennison) is "a bad egg" according to deranged social services worker Paula (Rachel House), who reels off a litany of offences including stealing, arson and graffiti. "That's just the stuff we know about," she adds menacingly. Paula and her police officer sidekick Andy (Oscar Kightley) place Ricky with clucky farm wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband Hector (Neill). "You're a big fella!" grins Bella, surveying Ricky up close. "Who ate the guy who ate all the pies, eh?" Her politically incorrect version of maternal pride melts Ricky's stony facade and he settles into a cosy bedroom, which has books, an Indian lamp and "a nice sharp knife to kill monsters in the night." A tragic twist of fate threatens to send Ricky to the nearest juvenile detention centre. So Hector heads into the bush with his young ward and their trusty dogs, Zag and Tupac. Their disappearance sparks a nationwide man hunt led by Paula, who has never lost a child in her care. "I'm the Terminator," she tells Ricky when they eventually cross paths. "You're more like Sarah Connor... in the first movie... before she could do chin-ups." Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a quirky buddy comedy, distinguished by verbal sparring between the two leads and director Waititi's moments of brio. The duo's random encounters in the outback, including a conspiracy theorist (Rhys Darby) and a rampaging wild boar, are just as likely to end in death as delirium. Waititi walks this tightrope between heartfelt sentimentality and spiky reality with aplomb. Even the macabre haikus, which Ricky composes to express his emotions, possess a raw charm. Waititi's new film/lays bare Ricky's growing pains/and melts beating hearts.