Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is actor-director Taika Waititi’s follow-up to the uproariously funny What We Do in the Shadows.  He has made a name for himself in the indie film ranks throughout the last decade, having also done the indie comedy Eagle vs. Shark and a handful of episodes of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  He is about to hit the mainstream as the director for Thor: Ragnarok in 2017.  These directorial efforts show a dexterity in subject matter, but a definite ear for comedy, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is no exception, as a film that is entertaining and endearing about two mismatched people learning to live together.

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a foster child who has bounced around from home to home as a troubled youth.  His latest home, a countryside farm with “Aunt” Bella (RimaTe Wiata) and “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill) is essentially his last chance to stick before being sent away to an orphanage or, worse, a detention center.  Bella is warm while Hec is gruff.  Ricky, a city kid obsessed with the gansta life, begrudgingly takes to his new surroundings.  The sudden, tragic death of Bella the resulting aftermath results in Ricky running away into the New Zealand bush, and shortly thereafter joined by Hec.  A broken ankle keeps them out there for longer than anticipated, and soon they are considered missing, only to have things spiral out of control which results in them living for an extended period of time out in the bush as outlaws while an overly determined child welfare worker, Paula (Rachel House), is on their trail.

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The basic skeleton of the plot is a familiar one of an old, curmudgeonly adult who ends up bonding with a young kid.  Movies from Bad Santa to Up, and even Despicable Me have similar arcs.  But Waititi brings a substantial amount of heart to his film.  Initially, Ricky comes across as rebellious, but that rebellion quickly subsides once Bella and Hec make him feel welcomed and wanted.  Despite being gruff and cantankerous, Hec’s love for Bella is genuine and his initial grief over her loss is heart wrenching.  And the connection she managed to form with Ricky over a short time is touching as well.  Despite Hec’s reluctance to talk about her, their ties to her end up being ties that bind them to one another.  Hec, who has a lot of experience with the New Zealand bush ends up teaching Ricky about like out in the wild and Ricky, while maybe not quick to adapt is eager to do so because of the alternative facing him if he goes back.

It’s a naturally funny film.  The juxtaposition of an overweight city teen having to survive in the bush with an foster parent who is somewhat indifferent to him is a fun premise.  Dennison is a nice surprise as Ricky.  He gets to do a little bit of everything, from physical comedy to spouting off pop culture references (he names his do Tupac).  Ricky is a character that also has some surprising emotional depth too, using haikus as a way to process and express his emotions.  Sam Neill is a fine actor who isn’t often given the chance to do comedy.  In fact, no other comedies come immediately to mind, so this is a refreshing change of pace for an actor who is often in serious dramas or playing an unstable horror character.  His character changes the most over the course of the film and it was a genuine treat to see an actor like Sam Neill get to exercise some acting muscles he usually isn’t given the chance to do.  Rachel House’s Paula comes across as the kind of person who allows her job to define who she is, as she adopts the mantra of “no child left behind” for he work.  She is determined to find and rescue/apprehend Ricky and refuses to quit like, in her mind, the Terminator.

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Waititi does a fine job with the material, which is adapted from a novel.  He maintains a chapter-based approach to the narrative, with each chapter heading in some way detailing what is to come.  There is an energy and creativeness to the way the story is told that not a lot of films have.  Whether it is the way that he depicts Ricky and Hec traveling through the bush or the quick cut visuals of when Paula relays to Bella what Ricky has done in the past to warrant being labeled a “bad egg” in here eyes, it all adds to the offbeat energy of the film.  And even though it is a little offbeat and the circumstances get increasingly more outrageous toward the end, by that time the charm and heart of the movie have won you over and you are so invested in the fate of these two character that it’s easy to forgive any indulgences that the story may take and the mildly abrupt change in tone the ending takes.

It’s fair to say that Hunt for the Wilderpeople was one more enjoyable films I have seen this year.  It’s a charming and entertaining delight that features a fun, solid cast and a director who seems to be coming into his own.  In some ways it reminded me of Swiss Army Man, in terms of two people living together in the wild, but far less weird.  The sincerity that comes through also reminded me of Son of Rambow.  When the credits began to roll and the headings of “Wildercast” and “Wildercrew” and even “Wilderdogs” appear, it is a reminder that the cast and crew clearly had fun making this film, though that shines through in the finished product as well.

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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