Hunt for the Wilderpeople

May 26, 2016
Julian Dennison in 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' (2016)
Julian Dennison in 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' (2016)

I’ve never wished I was a New Zealander except in the middle of one of Taika Waititi’s movies. There’s so much local colour, so many gags that only a Kiwi would understand, that I always feel I’m missing something. In What We Do in the Shadows it was funny to see the vampires strolling down Wellington mall on a Friday night, but for Wellingtonians it was hilarious. It had that ring of solemn truth.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Waititi’s fourth feature, and his biggest hit yet. Like his previous efforts it’s a charming, highly watchable comedy that proves there is life in New Zealand cinema after – or in spite of – Peter Jackson. One wonders what to expect of Waititi’s next movie, an installment in the Hollywood superhero franchise devoted to the mighty Thor? If he can make Chris Hemsworth (intentionally) funny, it will be a greater achievement than Lord of the Rings.

There are no superheroes in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The protagonist is a porky foster child named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), described by “relentless” child welfare officer, Paula Hall (Rachel House), as “a very bad egg”. In the city, Ricky’s lawless life consisted of stealing things, writing graffiti, and setting mailboxes on fire. He is being sent to the country in the hope he’ll change his evil ways.

In the bush, Ricky’s new family consists of his Auntie Bella (Rima te Wiata) and the morose, introverted Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Bella is one of nature’s optimists, and her positive outlook gradually breaks down Ricky’s defences. Hec is a different proposition. He looks at Ricky with undisguised horror, wanting only to be left alone. A scene where Bella improvises a 10th birthday song for Ricky, while Hec stares at his plate will go down as one of the unforgettable moments of Kiwi cinema.

Everything changes when Bella is removed from the picture and the Child Services want to take Ricky back. Having developed a taste for country life, Ricky decides he will escape into the bush after ingeniously faking his own suicide. Lost and hungry he is discovered by the cantankerous Hec, who has come in search of the fugitive. But when Hec injures his ankle and has to sit tight for a few days, Paula and Child Services arrive and announce that Ricky has been kidnapped by his crazy old foster parent.

The rest of the movie is a protracted stumble through the undergrowth, as Ricky and Hec stay one step ahead of Child Services, now boosted by the might of the police and soon the military, as well as vigilante rednecks and hostile wildlife. As the search escalates, dominating the headlines and news bulletins, Ricky feels that he and Hec should be called the Wilderpeople, in emulation of the African wilderbeest. This may sound a little weird, but the entire plot is so offbeat one can’t stop to ponder each individual piece of weirdness. There is, for instance, Ricky’s fondness for composing haiku…

Ricky and Hec are formidable comic creations in a movie in which everyone is larger than life, most especially Aunt Bella and Paula – who compares herself to the Terminator. Director, Waititi, has a cameo as a priest who delivers a eulogy that promotes a peculiar version of Christianity.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is essentially a chase film, in which the lack of real suspense (they’re being pursued by Child Services, not the Gestapo), is offset by the vivid nature of the characters. Dennison’s spirited performance should give hope to overweight children everywhere, while Neill does the same favour for curmugeons. These two buddies are even more unlikely than the Crowe and Gosling partnership in The Nice Guys.

It’s a coming-of-age tale for Ricky and a second childhood for Hec. For New Zealand it’s another very creditable comedy that makes one wonder why our neighbours have so much to laugh about while Australian cinema remains steeped in Stygian gloom? Perhaps the Aotearoans save all their seriousness for the rugby field.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Taika Waititi, after a novel by Barry Crump
Starring Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Rhys Darby
New Zealand, rated PG, 93 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th May, 2016.