Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by: Taika Waititi.
Written by: Taika Waititi based on the book by Barry Crump.
Starring: Sam Neill (Hec), Julian Dennison (Ricky), Rima Te Wiata (Bella), Rachel House (Paula), Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Kahu), Oscar Kightley (Andy), Stan Walker (Ron), Mike Minogue (Joe), Cohen Holloway (Hugh), Rhys Darby (Psycho Sam), Troy Kingi (TK), Taika Waititi (Minister), Hamish Parkinson (Gavin).
It doesn’t surprise me that Hunt for the Wilderpeople debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year – in many ways, the film is the embodiment of what the clichéd Sundance movie has become. It is a coming of age film, a drama with comedic underpinnings (or vice versa), about mismatched people forced together by circumstances beyond their control, who find that yes, they really do love each other. That could describe any number of Sundance movies over the years – the type that get huge buzz at the festival, and yet when you watch them a few months later, you wonder what all the fuss was about. In their way, Sundance movies have become as formulaic as the blockbusters Hollywood produces, that the Sundance films were supposed to be an antidote too. And yet, like a good blockbuster, it’s possible to find a delightful example of the Sundance film – and Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is such a film. Yes, it is as clichéd as it comes in many ways – but it’s so warm, so witty, so funny, and understated at the right times, that the damn thing won me over anyway. It’s an entertaining little film.
The movie centers on Ricky (Julian Dennison), a young New Zealand teenager of Maori descent who is described as a “bad egg” by the social worker who has found the young man another new home – after having been abandoned by everyone else. This home is with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill) – although she’ll be the main caretaker for Ricky. It becomes clear to us in the audience that Ricky isn’t really a bad kid – he’s just a kid who has been repeatedly hurt and abandoned, and doesn’t trust anyone else. But Bella wins that trust, and everything seems to be going fine – and then, suddenly it isn’t. Ricky ends up taking off into the wilderness, but is tracked down by Hec – who hurts himself in the process. So the pair are stuck in the middle of nowhere for weeks on end – and although they survive it easily, their disappearance raises alarm bells, and social services and the cops come looking for them. You may well think that perhaps they could just explain what happened and everything would be fine – and, well, I thought that too, but I suppose you don’t have much a movie if you do that, so just roll with it, I guess.
The film works mainly because of the performances by Neill and Dennison, and because of the skill of Waititi as both a writer and a director. Neill has been a well-known character actor for years, and he plays Hec – the man with the hardened exterior, who is really a softie on the inside, quite well. Dennison is a delight as the hip-hop obsessed kid, putting up a tough front, when he’s even more of a softie inside. The two play well off of each other. As a screenwriter, Waititi nicely underplays things – he doesn’t go for huge laughs most of the time, but more subtle, understated humor – something his visual style echoes as well. The film isn’t as out and out hilarious as his last film – What We Do in the Shadows – was, but it’s more heartfelt.