Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Beyond formula films

Hunt for the Wilderpeople by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi is a fun-filled adventure in the wilderness, a coming-of-age tale, and a buddies-on-the-run-road film. But mostly it is about the difficult journey to find or create a family. Finding a family requires the protagonist to explore his or her own character, and to enter the mess that is relationship.

While you might guess where the story will end, you can’t begin to chart the course as Waititi keeps changing the pacing, zigging and zagging between heartfelt emotion and pure craziness.

Ricky (Julian Dennison) has gotten in trouble for stealing and spitting, among other things, a list which the social services worker keeps repeating. Ricky tries to act tough, like a gangster, as he is taken from one foster care to another. But the vindictive and relentless social services person assumes he will be a failure. As a last resort before juvenile prison, Ricky is taken out to a broken-down farm at the end of the road to live with Bella. Ricky connects with this woman who can kill a wild boar with a knife and sing the wackiest Happy Birthday song you have ever heard. She dies suddenly, and Ricky is left with Bella’s husband, Hec, who doesn’t really want him. Filmmaker Waititi makes a wacky cameo as the pastor during the funeral sequence, which goes beyond almost anything I have ever seen.

Ricky, knowing he will be taken away, stages his own death and runs away into the wild landscape. Hec finds him, but a series of mishaps force them to stay in the wilderness for months. Gradually, they begin to care for each other. We also begin to notice that Ricky, unlike his projected façade, likes books and does haiku about their experiences. In a book, Ricky discovers wildebeests, animals that are often on the run for thousands of miles. He decides that he and Hec are like the wildebeests, chased by the police, errant hunters, search helicopters, and fully outfitted military personnel. Ricky and Hec are always on the move.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople references other films, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not only in its lines but also with its visuals. When Ricky sets off to run away, he walks up a fence line on a ridge, a fence that looks just like the one in another New Zealand film, The Piano. Ironically, the fence in The Piano was being built by Stewart, a character played by Sam Neill, who here plays Hec, the disgruntled old man of this film’s duo. Near the end, as the two gangsters race away in an old pickup followed by rows of police cars, the scene reminds one of the ending of Thelma and Louise, where the two protagonists must choose between surrender and going over a cliff in a flame of glory. Many viewers may not notice the references to these films where the actors also struggle to be free of constraints put on them by society, but it shows the way Waititi uses the language of film to add to the depth of his own low-budget film.

While you might guess where the story will end, you can’t begin to chart the course as Waititi keeps changing the pacing, zigging and zagging between heartfelt emotion and pure craziness. The film is immersed one moment in the dramatic narrative of Ricky growing up and of how he and Hec create a family, but then jumps to an absurd moment that calls for loud laughter. There are moments that get close to heartwarming as these two find something they had both been missing, but you won’t be crying through this one, since the serious touch is light and the laughter-inducing moments are many. Julian Dennison and Sam Neill make us believe the story is real, so every quirky moment is enjoyable.

The one thing that is not low-budget is the landscape; rough, rugged, and beautiful. The aerial footage shows the awe-inspiring vistas of the New Zealand wild spaces, while the music reminds us of what lurks below. Given all that is wonderful about this film, I can forgive some of the awkward scenes, particularly the fighting and chase scenes where the low-budget nature of the film is revealed. Hunt for the Wilderpeople has humor, an interesting story, and solid acting. My hunt is often for a film that isn’t just a repeat of the formula I have already seen. I found one such film here.

PG-13 (for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language).


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.