Relief in the Shadows

Waititi films among those offered by new streaming service

THREE-HUNDRED-YEARS YOUNG
What We Do in the Shadows stars Taika Waititi as an ageless neurotic vampire.

In 2017, director Taika Waititi emerged a new name in Hollywood when he helmed the latest Thor: Ragnarok. Noted for its deft comic performances and warmhearted humor, the film received considerable critical praise for a big-budget, effects-heavy Marvel superhero spectacle. Two years later, Waititi would receive multiple Academy Award nominations and a screenwriting award for his star-studded, sweet-natured, anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit.

But before the blockbusters and Oscar-nominated crowdpleasers, Waititi enjoyed a notable career as an independent filmmaker in his native New Zealand. Three of his works — funny, warm, poignant tales of outsiders finding and creating family — are available via the new streaming service Kanopy, offered through the Transylvania County Library.

Boy (2010) follows a young Maori kid, coming of age in 1980s Wellington, New Zealand, who’s enamored of his charismatic criminal father. It’s a goodnatured film, with big laughs and real moments of heartbreak as the son begins to see his father for who he really is. Waititi has a gift for getting unexpected, utterly authentic performances out of young actors, and James Rolleston, playing the titular Boy, is no exception. 

Waititi, himself the son of a Maori father, plays the father. In fact, casting himself in his films is one of Waititi’s calling cards.  He has a quick, quirky comic energy that infects his performances whether he’s playing role model to his young son, or, in the case of What We Do in the Shadows, a slightly neurotic, 376-year-old German vampire navigating the difficulties of 21st-century life in New Zealand with his three vampire roommates.  Filmed in a mockumentary style, it was a collaboration with fellow cast member, comic, and writer Jemaine Clement. It’s often uproariously funny, following the quartet of monsters as they perform quotidian chores and hash out minor household dramas, usually in the most petty and least supernatural way possible. A cult favorite from its release, What We Do in the Shadows has since become a similarly beloved television show on FX featuring a different cast, though with Waititi still serving as a show runner.

Like Boy, 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople involves a lovable, if troubled, adolescent boy seeking a family. He comes to live with a foster family at a remote farm, where a series of misadventures leads to him going on the run through the wilderness with his foster father, played by a terrifically gruff Sam Neill. It’s a charming movie, funny, threaded through with just enough real tragedy that its sweetness, when it comes, feels earned. 

As a director, Waititi shares some conceits with Wes Anderson, including a fascination with precocious children and their relationships with the difficult adults around them, and the sense of crooked storybook whimsy inherent in films that could be described as “Children’s Movies That Aren’t for Children.” But where Anderson’s films are often elaborate, art-directed down to the fiber, like a slightly offbeat Fabergé egg, there’s grit at the edges of Waititi’s films. 

His characters are lovable not so much in spite of their damage, but because of it, existing in places that often have no space or use for them. Their triumphs, though small, come in finding their place in the world.

Transylvania County Library offers cardholders access to the Taika Waititi films Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and thousands of other movies via its new streaming service Kanopy; see library.transylvaniacounty.org for more information.

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