Director Taika Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows) adapts Barry Crump’s kooky book about a juvenile delinquent left in the care of rough yet loving foster parents who live off the wilds of the New Zealand bush. Waititi’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is deeply affectionate in drawing out these characters in their untamed surroundings. Repeatedly flying over the bush, we see the vast expanse of natural wonders that they traverse with energy and purpose, without a clear destination.
A brash woman named Bella (Rima Te Wiata) facilitates Ricky’s (Julian Dennison) arrival at her farm, and welcomes him with open arms. She imparts a degree of familial comfort, skills, and nurturing that he has never known. Her curmudgeonly husband, “Uncle Hec” (Sam Neill), is a closed-off survivalist with untapped emotional reserves that he doesn’t want to spend on the boy. Killing animals for food and out of necessity has a light matter-of-fact air to it as Bella teaches Ricky how to hunt. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople decides early on that it’s a family film- building a family out of Bella’s kind nature and seeing it flourish as it meets adversity.
The bulk of the film’s emotional work is directed towards Uncle Hec, as he is forced to decide whether he can handle and care for Ricky when they are left alone. An incident forces them into isolation together and they run into the wild from a government that feels Ricky is in danger if Uncle Hec remains a guardian. Running into idiotic opportunists, a sweet family, and a winningly weird conspiracy nut in the bush (Flight of the Conchord’s Rhys Darby) in their travels are plot devices that nicely break up the repetitive nature of exploration- to a certain extent. The search for the outlaws is protracted, as it spans months with nothing remotely revelatory coming up after the first two-thirds of their journey. A representative of child protective services propels the search for the make-shift family, but almost eschews all the positive work of the film by testing audience patience, as the same message and blind determination to apprehend them are repeatedly rehashed. A few of the song choices don’t fit the tone of the arduous trek while others keep the tempo lively. An intermittent John Carpenter like score seeps in to ingrain the fierceness of the bush before them.
Julian Dennison’s Ricky inserts sarcastic albeit naive fresh air into all of his scenes, as he explores deprivation from civilization and time with a father figure. Neither have experienced a family dynamic before, so both have a lot to learn from each other in how they tend to each other’s sense of vulnerability and dependence. Sam Neill’s leveled gravely voice and cutting defensiveness lends credibility to all of their interactions. His astute ability to let cracks of levity shine through his gruff facade is a dry comedic pleasure to behold.
Sweet with negligible imperfections, the eccentricities of The Hunt for the Wilderpeople tug lightly at the heartstrings with confident sass. The film guides one to embrace these ragtag characters as they find themselves and each other on their extended existential lamb from society.