Family units are fascinating things. Some come ready-made, while others must be forged out of sheer will. That’s what Ricky (Julian Dennison) is hoping for, but this is his last chance. The orphan has spent his entire young life in and out of foster care, and if he can’t make this one work, it’s juvie for Ricky.
With no knowledge of his father and only a picture of his teenage mother, Ricky has turned to the gangster’s life for guidance: “I didn’t choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me.” He is a troublemaker, a vandal, a miscreant in baggy pants and a zip-up hoodie, one that zips up over his entire face. He’s about as gangster as a 13-year-old New Zealander can be.
Luckily for Ricky, Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is as kind-hearted as the surrounding New Zealand woods are wild. Living on a remote farm with her husband, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill), Bella adopts the youngster and makes him feel nothing but love. She gives him his own room, his own dog—Ricky names him Tupac—and writes him a welcoming song. For the first time in forever, Ricky has found a home.
But as quickly as things come, they go, and Bella dies suddenly. A short and unsentimental mourning period follows, and Hec decides that Ricky should return to the foster home. With no intention of going back, Ricky fakes his death and heads off into the woods with Tupac. Hec follows but breaks his ankle in the process, forcing Ricky and Hec to camp out for six weeks while Hec heals up. During which, a social worker, the police, and mercenary rangers tear the forest apart, looking for Ricky and Hec.
The majority of Hunt for the Wilderpeople—Ricky’s nickname for himself and Hec—takes place in that forest as the twosome make their way through the wilderness, crossing paths with incompetent rangers, a star-struck father and his earthy daughter, and one off-the-grid conspiracy nut, Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby with impeccable comedic timing).
Their odyssey brings Ricky and Hec closer together, with Hec revealing that both he and Bella were orphans. All three of them were cast off until Bella brought them under the same roof. It is never explicitly stated, but the longer that Ricky and Hec stay together, the more present Bella feels. The family is secure.
Adapted from the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a droll walk in the woods. Writer/director Taika Waititi brings the perfect combination of heart and humor and displays a keen eye for comedic staging, planimetric inserts, and the potency of incongruous images. The sight of Ricky’s rotund silhouette next to Hec’s grizzled visage is endlessly entertaining.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t exactly a surprising story—it plays out precisely as you hope—but it is a surprising movie. Surprising that it starts as strong as it does and maintains that momentum to its gonzo ending, preserving the family unit all the way through.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
Written and directed by Taika Waititi
Based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump
Produced by Carthew Neal, Matt Noonan, Leanne Saunders, Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby, Rachel House
The Orchard, Rated PG-13, Running time 101 minutes, Opened July 1, 2016.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 48, “Majestical or just majestic?“
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