EIFF 2016: Hunt for the Wilderpeople & Slash
Two great coming-of-age films from the 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival that embrace their outsiders as sympathetic and complicated human beings: Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Slash, a comedy set within the world of slash fiction
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (★★★★)
After the cult success of his 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi returns with a decidedly more mainstream coming-of-age comedy that’s nonetheless every bit as charming, deftly told and sweet-natured as its predecessor. Adapting his screenplay from a book by the late Kiwi author Barry Crump, Waititi mines a well-worn return-to-the-wild narrative, but it never feels warmed over thanks to its many clever but not cloying quirks of style and character. The film’s biggest strength is probably the indelible performances of its two leads, Sam Neill, as the gruff and grumpy ex-con 'Uncle' Hec Faulkner, and (especially) newcomer Julian Dennison as his wannabe gangster, haiku-spouting foster child, Ricky Baker.
Adorable and rotund 13-year-old Ricky fancies he lives the 'skux life' on the mean streets of Wellington. When he’s taken to a bucolic farm to live with his new 'Auntie' Bella (who’s fond of fuzzy cat jumpers and slaughtering wild pigs), he balks, but eventually is seduced by the unlimited pancakes, his new dog (who he names Tupac, natch) and Bella’s unmitigated love. Her ornery husband, Hec, however, just wants Ricky to leave him alone. When Bella dies suddenly, Ricky seems destined to end up in a juvenile detention centre. Instead he flees for the farthest reaches of the Bush, with Hec chasing close behind. Once the police decide that Hec has kidnapped Ricky, the two go on the lam, desperately evading crazed social worker Paula Hall (the wild-eyed and hilarious Rachel House) while surviving in the mountains by their wits.
Quirky outsider comedy is clearly Waititi’s forte, and here it’s polished to an effortlessly funny, confident and crowd-pleasing shine. Aside from Rhys Darby’s disappointing appearance as boilerplate conspiracy theorist 'Psycho Sam', Waititi manages to colour even the goofiest of his characters with lived-in nuance. He’s also a technically assured and visually inventive filmmaker. Wilderpeople is full of New Hollywood homages, including an Apocalypse Now–style flash of red during a particularly violent yet comic scene and an ingenious snowy montage (that appears as one continuous long take) set to the melancholy lament of Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan – a family-friendly shout-out to McCabe & Mrs Miller.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople screens at Filmhouse, 16 Jun, 8.30pm & Cineworld, 25 Jun, 8.30pm
Like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Clay Liford’s Slash is a funny and charming coming-of-age comedy about people finding each other while searching for a comfortable niche. It explores the much more adult milieu of 'slash' fiction: amateur stories written by fans who take established fantasy and sci-fi characters and place them in 'erotic' contexts. More specifically, it deals with teenage sexual confusion, especially through the eyes of its main character, 15-year-old Neil (Michael Johnston), who thinks he might be gay but is far from sure.
Slash gets off to a bit of a wobbly start, opening with a purposefully cheesy fantasy recreation of Neil’s own homoerotic slash fic and awkwardly setting up his home life. But as soon as he meets the 16-year-old Julia (Hannah Marks), a rebellious slash fic veteran, the film’s storytelling gets an immediate shot of self-assurance. Julia inspires the shy Neil to publish his work online, but she also might inspire something else: lust, or possibly even jealousy.
Slash frames its story to create as much confusion for the audience about Neil’s predicament as he’s in himself, and that lends it a refreshing ambiguity. This is a 'queer' film in the broad sense: one about exploring the spectrum of nonconforming sexuality and how it affects both relationships and self-assessment. Slash never feels exploitive of a subculture that could have been mined simply for cheap laughs (although there are many laughs) and it treats its characters, even minor ones, with similar respect.
Despite their very different approaches, both Slash and Hunt for the Wilderpeople embrace their outsiders as sympathetic and complicated human beings navigating the wild terrain of perpetual human bewilderment.
Slash screens at Cineworld, 17 Jun, 6.10pm & 18 Jun, 1.30pm
Edinburgh International Film Festival runs 15-26 Jun http://edfilmfest.org.uk