Mark Reviews Movies

Hunt for the Wilderpeople


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Taika Waititi

Cast: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Rhys Darby

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 6/24/16 (limited); 7/8/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 8, 2016

They begin as a trio, this unlikely family of foundlings. None of them has really known any other family until, one at a time, they found each other.

The woman came from the foster system. The man came from the wild. They met, fell in love, married, and wanted a child.

She wanted to pass on the good fortune of a loving household that she found later in life to a child who has never known a real family. He, knowing how much it means to her and maybe even a little of that feeling himself, went along with the idea. The boy, passed from foster home to foster home until it is all but apparent that nobody wants him, becomes the third member of the family.

There is so much goodness, such an unabashed sense of decency, in the first act of Hunt for the Wilderpeople that the sentiment carries through the rest of the film, which never quite achieves the good-natured heights of its opening act. There's a clear reason for that—an obvious absence from the remainder of the film that's something of a requirement for the story to move forward. The absence is felt, although that's kind of the point. Once the presence of such goodness and humanity is gone, it's necessary that the people who have experienced it will go looking for it again. It also is likely that there's only disappointment at the end of that search.

The boy is Ricky (Julian Dennison). The boy's social worker Paula (Rachel House) says the kid is trouble, listing such trivial offenses as spitting and throwing rocks with the same degree of nonchalance as Ricky's tendency to set things on fire (In her mind, all forms of misbehavior are equal).

Bella (Rima Te Wiata, making a tremendous impact in her relatively short screen time), the boy's new foster mother, doesn't mind. She's the big-hearted sort—a woman who can joke about Ricky's weight without making it seem like an insult. Her husband Hec (Sam Neill), a rugged bushman who has since settled down in the country outside the native forest of New Zealand, is more like Ricky in manner. Both are quiet and of few words, although, when he does get talking, Ricky, with his sense of humor, is more akin to Bella. What Ricky isn't used to—and doesn't seem capable of becoming used to—is how adept Bella is with a knife when she hunts a wild pig.

There's a genuinely delicate way in which writer/director Taika Waititi builds the relationship between the boy and his foster mother—the gradual move from Ricky's silence to becoming comfortable in everyday conversation, his first-night decision to run away from his new home becoming something a good-night joke between the two, a birthday celebration (which Ricky realizes, without a trace of bitterness, is his first) at which Bella serenades the now-teenager with her tiny electronic keyboard. Even Hec seems to be warming up to the kid.

Then, without warning, Bella is gone. There's no comfort to be found for the two whom she left behind—not in religion (Waititi makes a brief appearance as a minister with an obsession with metaphorical doors) or in their home life or even in each other.

The child welfare department sends a letter. With the circumstances changed, Ricky will be taken from his new home and sent who knows where. Hec doesn't care anymore, so Ricky sets out into the bush on his own, grudgingly followed by Hec, who just wants to move on with now-lonesome life. An injury changes those plans.

The two, stuck in the bush for the foreseeable future, bond over their shared loss and necessity. The necessity comes from the fact that they become the subjects of a national manhunt, since the overzealous Paula, whose inflated sense of self-importance and personal motto ("No child left behind") are a dangerous combination, assumes Hec has kidnapped Ricky. The screenplay (based on Barry Crump's novel Wild Pork and Watercress) follows the duo's survival in the woods, as Ricky learns the ways of living in the wild and Hec learns new slang words. From a story Ricky is hesitant to tell about a girl he knew from a foster home, Hec also gets a picture of the boy's life could be like if he goes back into the system.

Their adventures lead them to an assortment of allies and foes. Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), a local girl, gives Ricky a place to sleep for the night, lets him know that he and his uncle have become famous, and awakens some other feelings in the kid. Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) has been living on his own in the woods for 15 years, protecting himself from government conspiracies, and is a bit disappointed to learn that he hasn't become the legend he is in his own mind. A group of hunters becomes convinced that Hec is a pervert, thanks to Ricky's awkward wording of what the pair has been up to in the bush.

Waititi plays most of this as comedy (An encounter with a large, wild pig is a decidedly unnerving exception), and it works in that regard without overwhelming us with the characters' idiosyncrasies (Most of those belong to the supporting characters, who never overstay their welcome, anyway). Hunt for the Wilderpeople, though, depends on an underlying sense of melancholy to drive these characters—away from the loss of what could have been and toward the slim hope that something else could be as good. Waititi never loses sight of that reality.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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