MOVIE REVIEW: Hunt for the Wilderpeople


2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival selection and Audience Award winner


Cinema aficionados will quickly point fingers towards a few familiar comparisons for director Taika Waititi's New Zealand-based festival favorite, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."  The trouble is they will be shoehorning the film into an unshapely and narrow box where many containers are needed.  "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is rich and broad film with a charm and a sprawling ambition that will ping more that a few of your favorite film sensibilities.  Broken into ten cheeky episodic chapters and boasting beautiful natural beauty shot by cinematographer Lachlan Milne, you will find a fun experience that may feel familiar, yet is wholly unique.

Let's dig into this film's recipe.  First, it's a different kind of orphan/foster kid story than something like "Short Term 12" or even "Punky Brewster."  The petulant and pudgy Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), clad in a flat-brimmed cap, loud clothes, and a rap sheet of attitude and juvenile crime, has been assigned to a new foster home out in the forested and hilly New Zealand boonies away from his preferred urban haunts.  Delivered via security escort by Ricky's social worker Paula (Rachel House), his new caregivers are the unconventional rustic couple of the loquacious Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the silent indifference of Uncle Hec (Sam Neill).  They live modestly off the land, farming and hunting, which are foreign turnoffs to the hip-hop Millennial that is Ricky.

When equal moments of defiance and loss come to Ricky, he takes his new dog and decides to risk the dangers of the wild to run away and make a new home for himself in the bush, placing "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" in the "Into the Wild" and "Moonrise Kingdom" territories of survival and bonding adventures.  Humorously ill-equipped to capably survive on his own, Uncle Hec goes after him.  The two soon trade their disdain for kinship and begin to depend on and enjoy each other's company.  When their days missing on the run turn into weeks, the media and authorities pounce on the story and the suspicion of their whereabouts, setting off a country-wide manhunt that makes tabloid and mainstream headlines.  That is where vibes of "A Perfect World" kid-and-adult-mentor chase film and the coming-of-age classic "Stand by Me" get thrown into the soup.   

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is a dash and a taste of all of those aforementioned comparisons, but then it's not.  If any of those film mentions piqued your interest, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" will elevate and impress your liking with its own choices and interpretations.  The nods and influences are there and then writer-director Taika Waititi's quaint creativity takes over.  Waititi lets the performers build characters instead of tropes.  Ricky is more than just a thug imitator.  Hec is more than a irascible old man.  Bella is more than a zany redneck and even the frantic Paula, in semi-villainous pursuit, is more than a bumbling cop.  The hues make the difference. 

The trials, tribulations, tales, and tangents that come out of Ricky and Hec's journey flower into a garden mixture that breathes and percolates its own jubilant charisma.  Sure, sentimentality may rule this scenic excursion, but the dalliances are never predictable.  Not all of the film's wanderings and bits of humor work.  It is missing a final jolt of a meaningful coda to make the adventure resonate greater, but those are forgivable flaws against the entertaining qualities that greatly outnumber them.

Returning back to the compliments of character, watching our Ricky Baker, via the excellent emotions of Dennison and the character's own creative expression through haiku poetry, makes the film very worthy of your time and enjoyment.  His transformation from a snotty Millennial lacking humility to an assured and improved kid of bravery and confidence is a special treat to behold.  No nods or influences can create that exclusive groundswell.  This film finds that, like the character, on its own.  

LESSON #1: THROW A MILLENNIAL IN THE WOODS AND SEE WHAT KIND OF PERSON THEY REALLY ARE-- Us adults commonly find ourselves bemoaning today's current generation of tech-centered, indoor kids that play video games and devices instead of going outside to get dirty and find creative play organically.  Send one of the kids out of the house camping and see how long they last and how resourceful they are or are not once those batteries on the gadgets die.

LESSON #2: FINDING YOUR "KNACK"-- Seguing from Lesson #1, Ricky learns his own methodology for surviving and outwitting challenges that he calls "The Knack."  Just as the definition states, he improves his talent, skills, and cleverness to take to his new and preferred surroundings.  All of us should find similar ingenuity in life and not complain as much or quit a little less.

LESSON #3: FINDING SOMETHING OR SOMEONE TO TRULY LIVE FOR-- Like many orphans and foster kids, one root cause that makes Ricky act out is lack of connection, caring, and guidance.  The abandonment issues are huge and Ricky is seen as a hindrance or problem.  No cause or no person as of yet has shown that they value or care about him.  They don't see or love his strengths.