Rating in Stars: ***½ (out of ****)
Cast: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne
Directed by: Taika Waititi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 06/24/16 (limited)
Here is a goodhearted film, delightful and somber, zany and full of truth. Hunt for the Wilderpeople weaves a tale of a patchwork family whose members all came from different places nevertheless united in loneliness. The father was a bushman who fell in love and subsequently became civilized. The mother was already a part of this civilization, charmed by the man from the woods in spite of the probability of a future with no children. The son has arrived at his newest foster house, after an absentee father left the mother who in turn abandoned her child. Writer/director Taika Waititi’s comedy of manners eventually becomes a road-trip comedy, but for about twenty minutes, he allows us to examine the chemistry of this unique trio.
The father is a lovable grump who clearly finds his own situation almost entirely improbable. He is Hector (Sam Neill)–“Hec” for short–who has applied his formerly wild ways to something of an adaptation to rural life. The mother never knew her own family growing up, and one can imagine that she might have taken to fostering children even if she had met a man capable of producing them. She’s just that kind (and kind of) a woman, Bella (a phenomenal Rima Te Wiata, whose all-too-brief performance deserves every positive accolade one can afford). The foster son is a “real bad egg,” according to the child services official (Rachel House) who drops him with this elderly couple. But even after we receive a lengthy list of Ricky’s (Julian Dennison) wrongdoings, we actually meet the kid and are reminded that one’s attitude rarely truly reflects one’s character.
That’s all the wrongdoing was, after all: a personification of his attitude. He’s a lost kid who, though he denies it the one time he’s asked, desperately wants to meet his own mother (As for his father, well, some may know how that is). Bella is welcoming and kind, singing him a silly song for his birthday, and then suddenly the character exits the narrative in a way that is, perhaps, predictable but not easily acceptable. The film is divided into chapters (The idiom used by the official to describe is the title for one of them), and the occurrence happens right at the end of the first. Hec’s solution to retreat into the woods, and then Ricky gets the bright idea to join him.
Tracked by the government official and her bumbling policeman of a sidekick (Oscar Kightley) under the suspicion that Hec has kidnapped Ricky, the two spent almost half a year on the run through the New Zealand, and their excursion makes up roughly six of the remaining chapters. Waititi (who also has a funny cameo as an entirely unhelpful priest with a curious allegory for finding faith after tragedy), adapting a novel by Billy Crump, then turns on the comic switch, with Hec and Ricky meeting the likes of a forager named Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) whose governmental paranoia knows no boundaries and a father/daughter pair who take Ricky in one night and treat him like a celebrity and saving the life of a diabetic park ranger.
All of this is funny stuff, which means that the touching moments work all the more because of the chemistry between Dennison, whose Ricky is a loner this close to bursting out of his cocoon, and Neill, whose Hec is a very sad man who merely wants to be alone for a while after losing the only person for whom he became civilized (One guesses from his decision to retreat back into the woods that he probably wasn’t always a man of the woods anyway). Some ancillary distraction occurs with the inclusion of a trio of hunters who infer something scandalous and proceed to pop up now and then, but even so, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is often–to adopt Hec’s mistaken but well-meaning replacement for the term’s real counterpart–majestical.