Film Review: Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016) Directed by Taika Waititi
By: Belle McIntyre
The story of a troubled urban kid with no parents in the foster care system who finds himself placed with an older couple who live in the country could go in many predictable directions - ie. the healing power of nature, the simple life, a loving family, absence of corrupting influences, etc. What sets this story apart, and what lifts it out of the ordinary is that it takes place in the New Zealand bush country. We are talking about seriously remote wilderness.
Visualize a chubby hip hop-dressing, trash-talking, headphone-wearing, smart-ass thirteen year old, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) being dropped off at a very rustic farm on the edge of the bush by Paula, a stern child welfare official who makes it clear that this his last chance and he’d better make it work. He is warmly welcomed by a kind earth-mother type who introduces herself as Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata). The other half of his new family is Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), a curmudgeonly unshaven mountain-man of few words (mostly no words) who makes it abundantly clear that this was not his idea and he is not remotely interested in participating in this design for living which has been engineered by his wife.
Needless to say, Ricky’s integration into the family does not go seamlessly but Bella has a deep reservoir of patience and an instinctive way of managing the obstreperous youth. Just as things seems to be settling in Bella drops dead and all bets are off. Hec is devastated and announces that he is going into the bush to be alone and that Ricky will have to leave. Ricky totally freaks out at the thought of being subjected to the terrifying ministrations of Paula and the child welfare system and decides to bolt as well. The only place available to Ricky is also the bush.
By the time they find each other in the bush the child welfare people are searching for Ricky and when they discover that Hec is also missing they assume the worst, that Hec has absconded with the kid for his own nefarious reasons. And so begins the second phase of the story - a somewhat absurdly escalating manhunt which captures the attention of the media for the seven months that they are on the run. During that time, there are encounters with strange and frightening wild animals, as well as exceedingly strange and sometimes frightening wild humans. Paula turns out to be the most dangerous - a zealot on a mission spouting malapropos like “No child left behind” as she behaves like a dog catcher rounding kids up for the pound. She has zero tolerance and zero empathy. Things get pretty wild and crazy and Wes Anderson-ish as the chase goes on.
The story, based on a novel by Barry Crump, a popular author from New Zealand, has somewhat uneven pacing and character development. The secondary characters tend to be caricatures and stereotypes. However, Sam Neill as Hec and Julian Dennison’s Ricky are both spot on and their interactions with each other as they become increasingly reliant on one another for survival are nuanced and convincing. Inevitably they form a bond with some glimpses of genuine affection. Lest I forget to mention that much of it is hilarious and sometimes outright silly.