Review by GARTH JONES
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi’s (Eagle vs Shark) fourth feature film.
A family-oriented wilderness adventure comedy, Waititi’s latest is based on the 1996 book Wild Pork and Watercress, by eccentric Kiwi bushman-cum-author Barry Crump.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a disgruntled tween with a long list of minor misdemeanours. Those juvenile crimes point to an imminent stay in juvenile detention, barring his final shot at foster care.
As the film opens, child welfare agent Paula (Rachel House) and the clueless Officer Andy (Oscar Kightley) deliver Ricky to a rundown farm in New Zealand’s hill country.
It’s here that ‘gangsta culture’ worshiping Ricky meets eccentric foster ‘aunt’ Bella (Rema Te Wiata) and surly ‘uncle’ Hector Faulkner (Sam Neill, perhaps playing a variation on Crump).
Fish-out-of-water Ricky quickly assesses the enthusiastic Bella and the curmudgeonly Hector (Hec) as gullible bumpkins, and handily makes an escape bid. Sadly, Ricky has gravely overestimated his own bushcraft skills, and barely makes it 200 metres from the farm.
Following Ricky’s initial attempt at emancipation, Waititi quickly sketches in a begrudging (Ricky) yet tender (Bella, less-so Hec) family bond developing.
Tragedy strikes, however, when Bella unexpectedly passes away.
Hec, inconsolable, acquiesces to welfare agent Paula’s demand that Ricky return to state care. Ricky, having grown accustomed to the freedom of rural life, stages a dramatic escape and flees into the forest.
Ricky’s wildly optimistic evaluation of his own survival abilities once more leads to his apprehension by Hec. Events, however, quickly take several unexpected, farcical turns and the mismatched duo are soon subjects of an intense nation-wide manhunt.
A throwback to family-oriented survival romps of the ’70s and ’80s, Wilderpeople focuses on the evolution of Ricky and Hec’s relationship as they evade man, beast and nature itself.
Pursued by a comically escalating ensemble of welfare agents, bumbling woodsmen and, as Ricky puts it, ‘ninjas’ (Special Forces soldiers), our odd couple’s warm-hearted camaraderie evolves as adversity begets forgiveness, acceptance and finally trust.
Set in the rugged Te Urewera region of New Zealand’s north island, Hunt for the Wilderpeople also bears testament to the natural grandeur of the New Zealand landscape. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne captures the beauty and danger inherent in Ricky and Hec’s quest, providing a spectacularly vivid visual metaphor for the progression of the pair’s relationship.
Eventually, it becomes apparent that Ricky and Hector are our titular ‘Wilderpeople’, and the hunt of the title is not the authorities’, but actually the duo’s journey towards accepting one another as adopted kin.
A triumphant comedic fable, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a big-hearted, off-kilter celluloid experience celebrating misfits, perseverance against the odds and the endearing eccentricities of families in all their forms.