Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Kiwi writer/director Taika Waititi has proven rather adept at telling stories from the point of view of Kiwi teenagers. His earlier film on this subject, Boy, has become a kiwi classic. And while Hunt for the Wilderpeople skews a little lighter and younger than Boy did, it is no less heartfelt and enjoyable.

Thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) has been branded a ‘bad egg’ by child welfare services and has spent most of his life being moved between foster carers. The film opens as he’s placed with loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cantankerous husband Hector (Sam Neill), at their farm on the edge of the wild New Zealand bushlands. Tragedy causes Ricky to run away into the bush, pursued by Hector, leading to a national manhunt as the authorities declare the pair fugitives.

This is a coming of age story told from Ricky’s point of view and is a hilarious but moving tale. Bad-egg Ricky proves to be extremely likable, desperately trying to ‘be gangster’, while clutching tightly to the hot water bottle given to him by Bella. Likewise, gruff Hector proves that (like most kiwi blokes) the hard façade is just a front and deep down he’s just a gentle, caring soul… not that he’d ever admit it!

So far, so formulaic. But the film isn’t trying to buck any trends here. Instead, it tells a simple story incredibly well. This is as funny as any of Waititi’s previous films, although much more family friendly than last year’s What We Did in the Shadows. The film plays almost like a modern fairy tale, with many of the characters that Ricky meets seeming to be more pantomime in character than real. However, this only heightens the humor and lends well to the child-like perspective.

The cast is excellent. Julian Dennison and Sam Neill are very strong leads, and are supported well by the colorful characters they encounter. Rhys Darby is his usual gurning, off-kilter self, and Rachel House is great as the moustache-twirling villain from child welfare who vows to “leave no child behind”.

The film builds to a surprisingly high-octane finale but never loses its heart. My guess is that Waititi wanted to practice his action scene direction ahead of his big Hollywood debut next year, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the Thor franchise for Marvel. If he can bring the same deft touch for comedy and character that he’s demonstrated here, then Thor’s projected large-scale audience is in for a real treat.

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