Occasionally at film festivals, one sometimes goes in with certain preconceived notions about what they’re going to watch. While any critic worth his salt (or at least frequent doses of caffeine) will not to let that inform actual opinions or thoughts on a movie, it can preface the nicest of surprises—like Taika Waititi’s endlessly charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople. For here is the perfect example of a film that at a glance appears to be going one way, but winds up somewhere far more entertaining and endearing that you could possibly expect.
As the follow-up to Waititi’s amusing vampire send-up, What We Do in the Dark, the Kiwi filmmaker hews closer to his earlier directorial roots, including Boy and even shades of Flight of the Conchords, with Wilderpeople, which sees him returning home to adapt this popular New Zealand allegory.
Based on Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress, Hunt for the Wilderpeople begins as an overly familiar coming of age drama spliced with a reclamation project when husky problem child Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is shepherded to his potentially final foster parents. Having been displaced by everyone else who didn’t want his running away antics, Ricky is pawned off by the state on “Auntie” Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the stoic “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill). Living on a farm adjacent to the New Zealand bush, it is immediately obvious that Bella always wanted to take care of a kid, especially “hopeless” cases like Ricky, and Hec would rather just live out in the woods for a year than have to spend an afternoon with his new ward.
Thus the story of an untraditional family finding an inner-peace seems welcome and inevitable, but it is also not to be. First, it must be stressed that Rima Te Wiata imbues Bella with tangible warmth and a quite appealing humanity. Just as much as an outsider to civilization as Hec, and honestly Ricky, she provides a crucial anchor for the first act of the film that shows her in equal measures breakdown Ricky’s bad behavior while still being half-crazed enough to wrestle a wild boar to its death with a knife in hand and a cackle in her eye. Sadly, Aunt Bella is not long for this story, and after a tragedy, Sam Neill’s Hec is left with Ricky’s charge: a feat he’d rather have over his dead body… and indeed it almost plays out that way.
Faced with the prospect of Hec sending him back to the state, which is eager to institutionalize the lad, Ricky runs off into the bush one night, only to see his uncle sprain his ankle while chasing him into the wild.
And so the real movie starts. As a pair of loners that loathe each other, Hec and Ricky must due to necessity put away their grievances after their wilderness sabbatical leads to them becoming national celebrities and fugitives from the law. If Hec wants to avoid jail time, and Ricky doesn’t want to get also locked up by his vindictive social worker Paula (Rachel House), they must become the most rebellious odd couple imaginable as they live indefinitely outside the reach of government interference.
Written out, this seems like a lot of plot, but this essentially amounts to only the first act of the film. The real treasures of this transcendentalist and even libertarian fantasy should be experienced for the sheer comedic pairing of Neill and Dennison. For decades, Sam Neill has always been the kind of character actor whose mere presence instantly beguiles audiences, and Hec is hardly different. Yet, the stern curmudgeon-ness of the role gives the actor new layers to toy with as he almost vanishes underneath the anti-social gaze and white whiskers. The very image of rural hostility, he creates a great foil for little Ricky Baker, the sidekick Hec never wanted.
Their simple annoyances with each other makes their overnight celebrity (they’re a kind of father-and-son Thelma and Louise) both ludicrous and hilarious. Part pastoral road movie and part rebels without a cause (or a map), Waititi crafts a bone-dry comedy about outsiders vs. the system, even if the outsiders spend most of the film outside the possibility of understanding one another.
Waititi fills their journey with colorful side characters they meet along the way, such as Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), a hermit who has been in the bush far, far, far too long, as well as Oscar Kightley as Andy, Paula’s whipping boy for every time Ricky escapes through her fingers. An unfriendly mix of Sam Gerard and Ms. Trunchbull from Matilda, Paula’s menace represents the inherent humor of the piece: society’s most arbitrary rules are also the funniest if you just roll your eyes.
Still a yarn about coming of age, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is ultimately less about reclamation in the end than a fable about never saying die, even when a wild boar is chasing you through the woods. Thriving to hop from one quizzical tonal shift to another, Waititi maintains a light touch and an amiable nature to the proceedings that is exciting, clever, and unapologetically ridiculous. It is also one of the highlights of the Tribeca Film Festival this year.
For his next film, Waititi is upscaling to the world of blockbusters with Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok. With any luck, the same irreverent tone that has persisted in all his projects will survive, resisting Marvel’s formula and conformity just like Ricky Baker could resist the allures of civilization while forcibly driving Uncle Hec deeper into the sticks.