HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016)
Directed by Taika Waititi
Defender Films, 101 minutes, PG-13
* * * *
The late Roger Ebert once faced the questions every critic is asked at some point: Do you really think people listen to you? Do critics matter at all? In a moment of candor and insight Ebert admitted that in most cases his impact was minimal. How, after all, can a single voice stand against the Hollywood Hype Machine? In the case of blockbusters, people will go see the latest installment of Dumb and Dumber even if a critic declares it idiotic. Where critics matter is when they expose the public to wonders that fly under the radar screen and would otherwise be overlooked.
In that spirit, let me give four Eberts to the New Zealand film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s not pathbreaking, there are no Oscar-worthy performances, and, truth be told, it’s pretty silly in a lot of places. In the hands of a hack director, in fact, it would be lightweight fluff. Luckily, Taika Waititi is no hack; Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an absolute delight that will make you smile from start to finish. If you’re a fan of the Kiwi band Flight of the Conchords you already know that few people on the planet do kooky as well as New Zealanders, and Waititi’s film hums to that groove. He sets the tone with a self-deprecating introduction to the movie that strays into absurdity, likes what it sees, and stays there. (Later he does an amusing cameo turn as a minister.)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople centers on a pudgy Maori foster child, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). Ricky is childcare caseworker Paula’s (Rachel House) worst nightmare. He's the incorrigible kid who washes out of every placement she makes. Paula has come to see him as the spawn of Satan, though Ricky’s really very smart, has a low tolerance for faux sweetness, and knows exactly which buttons to push. The action begins when Paula places Ricky with an older couple, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), who have a hardscrabble farm in the Coromandel boondocks. Bella is sweet as well, but also tough as nails, while menacing, scowling “Hec” wants nothing to do with Ricky—and he’s certainly not buying any of Ricky’s Auckland street thug swagger. This triangle is played out with a combination of poignancy and hilarity.
The film’s namesake hunt for the wilderpeople (pronounced will-der-people) begins when tragedy throws Ricky and Hec together for a six-month flight from Paula, who seeks to place Ricky in “juvie” (juvenile detention center). The film is, in essence, a combination manhunt/ caper film with Paula cast as a wackier version of The Fugitive’s Detective Gerard (fused with Nurse Ratched), except she’s seen so many bad American cop movies she's slightly unhinged. Good luck finding Hec in the “bush;” he doesn’t play survivalist, he is one. Enjoy hearty surrealistic laughs as our unlikely comrades negotiate the bush and encounter three of the most inept bounty hunters in history, not to mention the stark raving mad Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby).
New Zealanders generally have low tolerance for pretense, egotism, or officiousness. Waititi has a field day satirizing formulaic religion, by-the-numbers bureaucracy, blow-dry TV blowhards, New Zealand “bloke” culture, and American-style machismo. The structure and vibe of Waititi’s film resembles Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, but it’s far wittier and it avoids the slapdash sloppiness that made Anderson’s film feel incomplete. The roly-poly Julian Dennison is exceedingly winning—perhaps the most affecting young actor out of New Zealand since Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider (2002). Sam Neill is, as he always has been, solid and malleable. Neill always makes us believe in his character, as he does with Jeremiah Johnson-like Hec. (Contrary to popular misconception, Sam Neill is a New Zealander, not an Australian.) As noted, House is suitably intense and demented, which makes her character fodder for lampoon. And let’s also give a shout-out for the New Zealand landscape, a character in its own right.
See this film—it’s too marvelous to miss. Then thank your faithful critic.
Click here to hear Waititi explain some New Zealand slang. You’ll instantly see his wackiness.
Want more NZ slang? Click here.