I hadn’t been to the cinema since I saw Captain America: Civil War in India, but getting back out there for Hunt for the Wilderpeople turned out to be absolutely worthwhile. This movie, the latest from New Zealand director Taika Waititi, provided pretty much everything I’m after in a movie-viewing experience. Before it started, I was wondering how long it was, simply because I was so tired. But only a few minutes in I was hooked and fully engaged with the film’s blend of charming, funny, and poignant.
The story, if you haven’t heard, is about 13 year old Ricky Baker, a troubled kid who has bounced from foster home to foster home, who winds up with the loving and enthusiastic Bella, while her grouchy husband Hec is more ambivalent. Circumstances conspire to put Ricky and Hec together in the New Zealand bush, where they put aside their differences to survive and get away from a relentless child services caseworker who thinks that Hec has abducted the boy. Ricky eventually dubs the two of the them the “Wilderpeople” (inspired by wildebeests) and the two become something of a local legend.
That’s the plot of the movies (roughly), and in a lot of ways it feels pretty familiar. We know that Ricky is going to try Hec’s patience with his shenanigans, we know the two are going to develop a bond over the course of their adventures, we know that that bond will be tested and we know that the testing will eventually give way to a greater strength between them. We know that Ricky will eventually “man up” in terms of his wilderness survival skills, and that Hec’s gruff exterior will eventually be scratched away enough to reveal a deep tenderness inside.
But there is so much we don’t know. We don’t know that Ricky will process his emotions in haikus, or that Bella will give him a sharp knife in this room in case there are any monsters to kill, or that the Maori dad would be so into sausages and selfies, or that the Child Services officer is going to say to Ricky, “No, I’m the Terminator. You’re more like Sarah Conner, and from the first movie, before she could do chin-ups.” You just don’t know how funny this movie is going to be, how quirky the characters, and yet how meaningful the relationships. It’s the best sort of comedy, where you laugh at these character but also cry, cheer and smile with them.
And of course, it’s all on the backdrop of the wondrous New Zealand countryside. So much beauty, contained in so few square kilometers.
Taika Waititi has managed to craft a film that is steeped in the culture of its origins (New Zealand) but is still completely accessible, at least for me. I always think it’s great when you find something like that–it brings you someplace new but helps you feel grounded the entire time. I’m with Waititi’s work from his even-quirkier romantic comedy, Eagle vs. Shark. I liked that film but I’d say that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a bit easier to connect with. The movie is really built on a series of authentic performances, who all come to life under the light touch of Waititi’s direction: Julian Denison as Ricky, Rima Te Wiata as Bella, Rachel House as Paula, and of course Sam Neill as Hec. I also enjoyed the director as a particularly goofy minister–definitely funnier than watching him in Green Lantern!
Toward the end of the movie, the film moves further and further into a sort of surreal dream-fantasy, but never so far that it loses touch with its humanity. Overall, it’s a richly rewarding and enjoyable experience.