Taika Waititi’s follow-up to What We Do in Shadows, and his last stop before joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, is Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A film that explores familiar territory but manages to remain funny and interesting.
Ricky Baker, a Tupac-loving, haiku-waxing chubby teenager, is a real “bad egg” so says the social worker who’s tasked with finding him a new foster home in New Zealand. Apparently it’s quite a challenge since Ricky has a history of “disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away…” the list goes on. As she, the utmost professional, reminds him, “There’s no one else who wants you.”
The social worker finally succeeds with Bella, an older woman who lives by the bush, whose maternal approach ranges from molly-coddling to letting Ricky run away into the bush (preferably after breakfast). Ricky, for all his errant ways which are hilariously small-time, settles in well and forms a strong bond with Bella. However her cantankerous husband Hec (delightfully played by Sam Neill) needs some time to adjust.
But just as Ricky settles in and relaxes, circumstances mean he must be taken away from his new, loving home. Naturally, this can’t stand and Ricky, in all his colourful garments – from the plastic leopard print hat to the garish hoody with dollar signs and diamonds – escapes into the bush for real this time, where he’s found by Hec and the two are forced to spend time together…
The film’s central premise, that of a grumpy man forced to spend time with a child, is not a new one. In fact, it’s been depicted on-screen so often any new forays into similar territory risk ending up being more bland cliché than a hit. One only has to think of About A Boy (2002), Gran Torino (2008) and Up (2009) to see just how saturated this sub-genre is. And how diverse – the charming and sometimes cruel Hugh Grant; Clint Eastwood’s gritty racist war vet; the heartbroken Carl. Comedy, drama, live-action, animation – all of incredibly high quality. A new entrant would have to offer something very novel and interesting to stand a chance against the canon or be doomed to gather dust alongside anodyne films like Dennis the Menace, Man On Fire and St. Vincent.
It’s fair to say that Hunt for the Wilderpeople succeeds. Waititi’s back-to-basics approach works in his favour. The setting of the bush, an isolated location, allows his script, based on a beloved Barry Crump book, to home in on the intergenerational friction and friendship between Ricky and Hec. The stakes are only as high as the characters and their development need them to be. Throughout the film we learn why Ricky and Hec are the way they are and why the bush is such an understandable and sad sanctuary for the pair.
Much of the humour comes from the general, perhaps stereotypical, Antipodean casualness. The TV coverage of the manhunt is hilariously insouciant with journalists making references to Rambo: First Blood and the witnesses taking selfies with Ricky and feeding him sausages rather than calling the police.
Side characters are sprinkled in strategically to dedicate more time to the two main characters’ interaction. From the hapless trio of hunters who are trying to capture Ricky and Hec – forcing them to work together to escape – to Rhys Darby’s paranoid literal bushman (it’s hilarious), they all add little dimensions to the protagonists’ relationship.
Sam Neill is wonderful as Hec, whose frown alone conveys more than a person could in a whole novel. His cranky old man never grates or becomes one dimensional. Nor does Julian Dennison’s Ricky become a caricature. It’s a laudable, earnest performance from a young actor whose debut only came three years ago (for which he won Best Supporting Actor at the New Zealand Film Awards). They both tap into the qualities that made the relationships in the likes of Up a roaring success: they feel natural and their relationship is organic. There’s no contrived drama. The film is supremely confident in its own ability to tell a relatively small-scale story and tell it well.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a refreshing reminder that films can say something new, funny and interesting even when retreading familiar territory – they just have to have heart. And this film has tonnes of it. 4/5