Hunt for the Wilderpeople January 12, 2017
In a departure from 2015’s uproarious What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary revolving around the lives of vampires and other ghastly ghouls, writer/director Taika Waititi’s latest, 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a road movie/slapstick comedy that trades the dry wit of the former for a kind of warm humor that eventually makes way for a great deal of heart, of welcome sentimentality.
In the film, we find our protagonist in Ricky (a genial Julian Dennison), a plump, rambunctious foster child in the midst of being dropped off at his latest home, this time of that of New Zealanders Bella and Hec (a briefly affable Rima Te Wiata and a grouchy turned soft Sam Neill). Though preceded by a difficult rep — he’s allegedly a bad egg prone to, as a social worker (Rachel House) warns, “disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, loitering, and graffiti-ing” — Bella, especially, sees potential in him. She’s a kind-heart without being cloying about it, and gives Ricky the chance to familiarize himself with his surroundings before latching on too quickly.
And her adventurous, sympathetic disposition gets her far. Before long, Ricky has taken to his new foster parents, whom he touchingly calls Auntie and Uncle. For the next few months is his life as Nuclear Family imitating as it can get, much to his satisfaction. But the familial perfection that’s eluded him for so long suddenly comes screeching to a halt when Bella unexpectedly passes away, prompting Hec, who never much wanted a child to take care of to begin with, to announce that he’ll be taking Ricky right back to the orphanage within the next few days. That doesn’t sit well with the preteen, and, preferring the idea of making it on his own to going back to the juvie he’s had to call home for so many years, ineptly fakes his own death (by placing a makeshift dummy in the family’s barn and burning it down) and ventures on for the bush.
Hec finds him immediately, as Ricky’s predictably not such a talented woodsman. But after tripping and injuring his foot, Hec’s forced to camp with his quasi-son for a short period and stride toward the comforts of home slowly but capably. Problem is is that the two are gone long enough for authorities to head over to the house for their bi-weekly visit and notice that both are missing, with the barn burnt to a crisp. Deciding that Hec must have kidnapped Ricky as a sort of misguided aftereffect of his wife’s death, a manhunt begins. In the process, Ricky and Hec must learn to cope with one another or live with the consequences.
In Hunt for the Wilderpeople do we have a painlessly funny family movie that triumphs as one of 2016’s most overlooked features — it’s the rare breed of crowd-pleasing diversion that pushes past saccharinity and instead settles for huggable compassion that feels just about right. Laughs come easily and so do tugs at the heartstrings. You leave the film with the unmistakably ecstatic feeling that rests in one’s stomach after watching a particularly affecting dramedy. It’s equal parts witty and poignant, never manipulative and always sharp.
Waititi doubtlessly has a great career ahead of him. A Kiwi filmmaker and comedian who’s mostly made waves on a smaller scale, he’s about to prove his versatility with upcoming Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok, which will act as his latest directorial detour. One hopes the film will bring him a type of notoriety that will allow films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople to move toward the mainstream. A feature so lovable is deserving of a wider audience. B+