Hunt for the Wilderpeople
* * *
A sweet delight from New Zealand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, from writer-director Taika Waititi, is an endearing coming of age movie about a non-traditional relationship that creates a new definition of trust and family. Nice message, nice picture and a pair of lovely performances.
Troubled, thirteen-year-old orphan Ricky Baker (whip smart Julian Dennison) is a textbook juvenile delinquent. You name it—burning, breaking, stealing and running away from a string of foster homes—Ricky has done it. Withdrawn, overweight and defiant, when he’s shuttled away to live in an isolated, decrepit farmhouse owned by eccentric Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her brooding, hunting husband Hec (Sam Neill), he plans another escape.
But he’s surprised to find himself warming up to Bella, a mountain woman with a heart of gold who wants nothing more than to give him a happy home, much to the consternation of husband Hec, who looks at Ricky as an irritant and unnecessary baggage. It turns out that compassionate Bella has a savior complex of sorts, and did the same for Hec much earlier.
Then something terrible happens, and Ricky, fearful of being thrown back into child services, takes off into the vast and dangerous bush to hide, followed by reluctant Hec, stepping into a protector role for a kid he’d just as soon rid himself of. In a comedic gem of a performance, Rachel House is the child services agent in hot pursuit.
It’s here that the film’s survival story and deepening friendship between grizzled old man and parentless kid takes hold, and one of the pleasures here is that this relationship is never sentimentalized, nor is it predictable.
Eventually all of New Zealand is tuned into their months-long disappearance, and accusations of impropriety on Hec’s part are alleged while their flight from social services bureaucracy takes on folk hero proportions.
The second half of the picture moves faster as the chase becomes tighter, and it’s here that Waititi delivers action goods in the form of all-terrain chase sequences, animal brawls and a climactic car chase leading to a vast junkyard showdown, expertly shot by DP Lachlan Milne.
Waititi, the prolific New Zealand filmmaker whose surprise 2015 art-house hit What We Do in the Shadows displayed a similar comic dexterity but without this movie’s underlying seriousness of childhood loneliness, kindred spirits and rebirth. In America, the same film would be told with heavy, stunt-laden hijinks. Waititi lets his two actors do the work.