One-line review: Well-aged wine in a charming new bottle, paired with some good cheese.

I discovered this film only recently because of Taika Waititi’s rapidly rising star and the resulting interest in his previous work. This movie was a top grosser in New Zealand on its release, topping Taika’s previous film, Boy, and also screened at Sundance.  Taika adapted the screenplay from the famous NZ writer Barry Crump’s book, Wild pork, and watercress. The script was initially dark and serious, but when Waititi returned to it after a couple of movies, thankfully for us, he decided to make it funny and uplifting. The film has the now-familiar Waititi sensibility, sweet, light-footed yet serious, which he attributes to his growing up poor and bullied when humor was a necessary armor.

The film is about the notorious orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), who is in his final foster home before being sent to juvenile prison. But it looks like he has struck gold with the loving yet tough Bella (Rima Te Wiata), who is determined to keep and love him. Her loving but grumpy husband, Hector (Sam Neill), doesn’t want Ricky there but goes along with Bella’s wishes. Just when it looks like they will live happily ever after as a trifecta (Bella’s words), circumstances change, forcing Ricky to run away. Hector goes looking for him, and they eventually bond in the bushes. They both cannot return to the mainland for different reasons and decide to hide out in the bushes. The NZ Police organizes a massive manhunt led by Ricky’s nemesis, social worker Paula Hall (Rachel House). Eventually, all is well, and Ricky and Hector live happily ever after. 

The simple story is the old wine of an orphan ending up on the right side of society and a grumpy old man warming up to him. But Waititi’s imaginative plot and biting humor, aided by some spectacular acting, elevate it to vintage wine served with the perfect cheese. And you leave giddily drunk talking about the experience. I suspect word-of-mouth publicity made it a massive hit in NZ because I haven’t stopped recommending or rewatching the film since I first watched it.

The film’s breakout star is child actor Julian Dennison, whom Waititi cast without auditioning after shooting him in an ad film. Julian plays Ricky Baker with supreme confidence and charm without becoming too cute or annoying like many child actors. As Waititi points out, Ricky needs to be smarter than everyone around him, and Dennison delivers his lines with such punch; for example, he says I am hungry with an accent on the word hungry. He credits his performance to his coach Rachel House who interestingly plays the evil social worker in the film. The film rests on Julian’s little big shoulders (you will have to see the film to understand this sentence), and he confidently lifts it like a trained powerlifter.  

His partner in crime is the veteran Sam Neill, whose presence must have given the film its initial credibility. Waititi recalls Sam Neill’s reservations about his character because he has no funny lines and yet must spar with actors with serious comedy chops and zinger lines. Waititi reassured him that Neill playing the curmudgeon Hector straight would be funny in itself. Neill’s fears were not unfounded: he initially appears as one-dimensional with his permanent scowl. But he comes into his own when he warms up to Ricky and can emote (Neill’s strength). I couldn’t help thinking what Jeff Bridges would have done with the role, a delicious possibility, but he would perhaps have overpowered this small movie. 

The supporting actors are also memorable, like Waititi’s hilarious priest and Rima Ti Wiata’s Bella, who is the film’s spirit. The slapstick comedy of Rhys Darby’s psycho Sam or the three rangers played by Cohen Holloway, Mike Minogue, and Stand Walker could have gone wrong in the hands of lesser actors or a less confident director. The seasoned actor and comic Oscar Kightley seems underused. The two dogs, Zag and Tupac, hold their own amidst this talented cast. 

The film’s music, which includes original tracks by NZ band Moniker, is as integral to it as salt is to a dish. The beats and the lyrics perfectly fit the scenes and carry the film forward or give the scenes additional layers. Aussie cinematographer Lachlan Milne, whose impressive credits include Minari and the TV series “Stranger Things,” captures the “majestical” NZ landscape in all its glory. Listen to his fascinating interview about the challenges of shooting small-budget Indie films like this one below. The film ends with a ludicrous car chase, but by then, we are entirely into the ride, ready to go wherever Waititi wants to take us.    

Why watch it? To be entertained yet uplifted by a story about family. But family is what you make it and not about blood ties.

Lachlan Milne’s interview

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