I'm the first to admit it but the kind of stories that really push my buttons usually involve a lot of horrifying technofear spectacle and gruesome blood letting. My all time favourite ends with a Gestapo agent's face melting on screen after all. But sometimes the best movies come from unexpected places, and real warmth and humanity also work their magic on my black heart when done effectively. This New Zealand production from the makers of quirky mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows offers a similar amount of oddball characters and offbeat laughs, but also allows for a huge amount of surprisingly excellent character drama that goes well beyond silly gags. While still including plenty of them of course.
Juvenile delinquent Ricky (Julian Dennison) has reached the limits of social service care, in terms of what foster parents they can offer as well as the location of the people that will take him in. Having been from home to home he reaches the last resort, a farm in the countryside where Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill) have agreed to bring him into their isolated existence. Or at least, she has agreed. At first there are a lot of awkward silences and failed attempts at getting things off the ground as his adoptive family, but things slowly start to take off. However just when things seem to actually be working out a series of unexpected events results in the situation caving in on itself.
Without revealing too much the Wilderpeople of the title are Ricky and his new 'uncle', as they find themselves trying to live in the woods. Hector really doesn't want the job and his new charge isn't up to the challenge, their dynamic is easy to see. At first they face basic problems like injuries and dwindling food supplies, but soon things go awry and they have to run from the authorities. The core of the film is the interaction between these two have as their unlikely relationship is explored. Ricky is a music obsessed teenager who wants to be gangster rapper, and has a dog named... Tupac. Hector on the other hand is a grizzled survivalist type who has done jail time and has no interest in children, giving into his wife's passion for helping people. The humour and the characterisation mined from the situation is great as they try to get along with each other, sometimes with more dependence than they'd like.
Both give engaging performances as they scale the scenic landscapes and discover new things about one another. Some of the best parts are small moments where they discover that they've both seen hard times in the past which created their current outlooks on life. The whole plot arc might seem pretty unoriginal on the outside, but the execution works and everything else varies between fun and surprisingly poignant. At times it starts to feel mildly uneven as weird secondary characters appear, usually just for laughs, but as a whole the tone is consistently entertaining. I could do with slightly less of the police who crop up regularly on the hunt for the two protagonists, but their presence isn't too grating once things get going.
At the start it takes a little working out to get a feel of the style they're aiming for as the serious child protection subplot seems to be at the fore, but as it develops you really get a taste for its sense of humour. The peaks in scenes of both sadness and levity are all well measured as the journey unfolds, and while I'd question calling it a feel good story there are plenty of moments that really hit those emotive beats right on target. This is all supported by some great natural vistas as the two outlaws go on their travels. The score from indie band Moniker also boosts the overall personality of the film, which itself is boosted by a good selection of licensed soundtrack tunes including Nina Simone and the Alessi Brothers. It's a real treat overall, one that offers more charm and nuance than the bigger releases from 2016, making this my film of the year.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)
A revised version of things like E.T. and even John Carpenter's E.T. inspired alien drama Starman, this has a strong start as Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friends try and rescue a boy from a cult like commune. His eerie powers have resulted in them seeing him as a saviour figure, but Roy has information that leads him to believe that he must be taken to a certain place in a matter of days to save his life. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena and spooky moments as the boy exhibits strange behaviour, sometimes feeling that satellites are watching and often speaking in words that are being broadcast by radio stations.
However unlike Jeff Nichol's previous drama Take Shelter there isn't enough focus on the characters who feel a bit too thinly drawn in favour of simply getting them on the road and into a chase movie. The cast are all pretty good so it's unfortunate that they opted to leave out the expected family interaction drama and just drop us into what feels like the third act action right away. The final reveal isn't that dramatic or developed either, which might have been strengthened with a little more focus on certain details earlier on. As it stands there are some interesting moments for fans of this kind of genre movie, but it's ultimately too lacking in depth for me to give it a broader recommendation.