Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and "The Station Agent":
two-fer review

Dramedies seem to be my current lot in life. Having just watched the egregiously estrogen-drenched "Lady Bird," I moved on to Taika Waititi's 2016 "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and 2003's "The Station Agent." I bought "Wilderpeople" on iTunes as part of my ongoing project to understand Taika Waititi's directorial sensibility; "The Station Agent" (purchased via Amazon Prime) was a film recommended by fellow blogger Steve Honeywell, whose movie-review blog you should definitely be reading.

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople," directed by Taika Waititi, stars Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, and Rachel House. The story centers on Ricky Baker, a delinquent orphan who has just turned thirteen, and who is shunted by New Zealand's Child Protective Services to an older couple who live on a farm—an utter contrast to Ricky's heretofore urban-jungle childhood. "Aunt" Bella (Te Wiata) is warm and welcoming toward Ricky; "Uncle" Hec (Neill) is gruff and taciturn, not wanting to have anything to do with the child. Ricky, who is grossly overweight, tries running away a few times, but he never gets far, and Aunt Bella is constantly forgiving, displaying a level of empathy and care that Ricky has never experienced before. Ricky grows accustomed to life on the farm and warms up to Bella's care, even happily celebrating his birthday with the older couple. The plot doesn't really get rolling until Bella's sudden death, which pushes Hec to reject farm life (it was Bella's farm, never his). At the same time, Child Protective Services reasserts itself, telling Hec that Ricky will have to be relocated to a new home. Horrified, Ricky insists on joining Hec on his escape from civilization, and once the two disappear off the grid, a national manhunt lasting several months ensues, during which time Hec and Ricky—and their two dogs, Zig and Tupac—find themselves thrust into a series of wilderness adventures. At this point, having now seen three of Waititi's films, I'd describe the man's humor as wry: while Waititi attempts broad, slapstick comedy in his films, he's best at the sort of low-key moments that made movies like "This Is Spinal Tap" funny (cf. the "This one goes to eleven" scene). "Wilderpeople" has a painfully predictable story arc: you know from the beginning that smartass Ricky and gruff old Hec are going to end up bonding and depending on each other. But despite the predictability, what matters most is the journey, not the destination, and the story proves quite enjoyable, with Hec and Ricky meeting a colorful assortment of characters along the way (Psycho Sam gets special mention). Julian Dennison, while not the greatest child actor I've seen, is good enough to carry his scenes without becoming overly annoying, and it's always good to see the ever-likable Sam Neill in something other than his usual Hollywood roles. A good film, all in all.

"The Station Agent," also a dramedy, stars Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale. Dinklage plays Finbar "Fin" McBride, a quiet, introverted man fascinated by trains. Fin works in a model-train shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, with shop owner Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin), who dies within the first five minutes of the film. Fin learns that Henry, in his will, has left Fin with a small property in Newfoundland, New Jersey, on which sits an abandoned train station, complete with a rickety station house and a single train car. Fin leaves his current digs and immediately moves into the new place, delighted to learn that the location is in the middle of a semi-rural nowhere. His bliss is shattered, however, when he meets Joe Oramas (Cannavale), a young, loud, extraverted food-truck guy who insists on trying to strike up conversations with Fin. Fin also meets Olivia Harris (Clarkson), a frazzled, dotty local artist who nearly kills Fin twice with her SUV when she gets distracted—first by her cell phone, and next by spilled hot coffee. (Fin has no car, so he walks everywhere when he needs supplies). Some of the comedy in "The Station Agent" is situational: Olivia visits Fin one evening to give him a bottle of wine to apologize for nearly killing him. When she spends the night on his couch and leaves the next morning, Joe—whose food truck is always parked by Fin's residence—thinks that she and Fin have already begun sleeping together. Fin also catches the attention of the young local librarian (Michelle Williams, looking incredibly goofy and clueless in 2003, a far cry from the mature woman she played in "Manchester by the Sea"), so through no fault of his own, he's gaining a reputation (with Joe, at least) as the local dwarf stud. As the film progresses, the three older main characters begin to open up to each other, letting each other into their complicated lives, exposing raw nerves and forming friendships. Joe has the shallowest character arc, given that he doesn't change much; Fin and Olivia, both withdrawn and troubled in their own ways, have further to go when it comes to reaching out. Olivia is in need of healing: she's still processing the death of her son from two years before; Fin, as a dwarf, has taken to living a reclusive life and being guarded with people in general. I was expecting a louder, zanier comedy than what I actually got with "The Station Agent," but in the end, I enjoyed this quiet, thoughtful movie about the blossoming of friendship and everyone's need, on some level, for human connection. The acting, especially Clarkson's, is great all around, and the story sends a clear message without being overly preachy about it. This is a mark of good screenwriting. "The Station Agent" tells a good story deftly, and that's about all you can ask for in a movie.

No comments: