The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Wilderpeople from here on out) is an insanely difficult film to write about. It’s the kind of film that reinvigorates your faith in humanity. At heart it’s an underdog story, made with the ambition and imagination of films that dwarf’s it in both budget and star power. The levels of brilliance in the writing; organic poignancy peppered with a stream of straight-faced hilarity from the eccentrics that feature throughout the film; make it daunting to get words on a page. Wilderpeople is the kind of singularly fulfilling movie that Taika Waititi (TW) continues to deliver. It follows in the footsteps of the cringeworthy glory of Eagle Vs Shark; laughing until your insides hurt with What We Do in Shadows; and Boy – a work of such blinding perfection that it’s difficult even to comprehend. Wilderpeople is a tale of finding family, adventure and purpose when you’re on your last dice roll.
Watch the trailer:
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a foster kid on his last potential home before juvenile prison. On Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hect’s (Sam Neill) farm on the edge of the New Zealand wilderness he finds unlikely peace and contentment. When Bella’s sudden passing sentences Ricky to life back in the child welfare system, he decides that he will fake his death (badly) and ‘go bush’ to break the vicious cycle. Hect, a seasoned bushman, tracks him down and before he can get him back to civilisation, has an accident that strands them in the forest. Due to a series of misunderstandings that follow, Hect’s retrieval of Ricky becomes a kidnapping that incites a nation-wide man-hunt.
TW films are almost indefinable. TW has an uncanny sense of loading a story with death, dread and sorrow and tempering that with comedy, gags, and the genuinely moving. Wilderpeople is a movie that loves movies and TW’s adoration for classic films pop throughout. But instead of letting them slide, the characters have a habit of going meta and referencing how that particular moment that they’re experiencing is just like (INSERT MOVIE HERE). New Zealand has been invaded with U.S pop culture, and however jarring it is to see a young Maori boy tell his foster mum that Tupac is his best friend, it feels so authentic. There are beautiful flourishes of great little jokes; but TW has that instinct to play it straight-faced and let these lines that should rouse a crowd into hysterics, drop so casually.
From the first minute of the film TW demonstrates such a deft touch with the camera. A car driving down a country road and arriving at a farm house is monumental. The soft focus on our “Bad Egg” Ricky Baker, the sweeping arc to show the unfocused faces of Baker and his child services/police escorts begin the film with pangs of evocative mystery. The arrival of the police cars, the languid exit focusing on the details of their dismount – for the car only serves to compound the brief tension. When you arrive at Bella’s farm you realise that TW has been blowing up a balloon that’s function is to be popped. This isn’t a gargantuan event, it’s the placement of a troubled foster child to a farmhouse. TW loves to make New Zealand feel like it has the stakes of The Lord of the Rings and then immediately deflate it back to size in Wilderpeople (and in some ways his whole body of work). There’s a remarkable scene that uses Nina Simone’s Sinnerman for the tempo (and joke) emphasis for the intensifying search for Ricky and Uncle Hect. Swirling in an economical and inventive passage of time montage posing Ricky and Hect alongside those in pursuit in an inescapable centrifuge. It’s not all economy however; while we know it’s a movie that was made for ten bucks it looks it has a $30 million dollar budget. At the culmination of the film, in a chase scene that makes you reminisce for Thelma and Louise, the film explodes in scope; and your jaw may actually drop.
The characters are constructed to manipulate your perceptions. Ricky is a kid who has been cast as a destructive force. The moment he meets Bella, she’s an unstoppable positive influence. Dennison plays Ricky to perfection. The whole film hinges on his ability to stand toe to toe with Sam Neill in the woods. There’s the reputation of craziness that’s associated with him that’s really rooted in abandonment; he lashes out for protection. It’s a performance that balances that childish obliviousness to the consequences of their actions and the frustration caused by the apathy of the actions. Some films don’t strike the balance, instead they fall over and make the child infuriating. Ricky never stops being loveable and awesome.
Rima Te Wiata is just a wonder as Bella; she’s the glue that’s holding the family together. They’re bound by her warmth, affection and little magical touches of care (there’s love in a timely hot water bottle in bed, to ensure that it’s toasty when Ricky gets in there). The no nonsense approach she takes with putting Ricky to work that immediately puts the idle hands that have made him a bad egg, to good use. These delightful ‘Mum’ things are contrasted by her having the ‘stones’ to take on a wild boar with a knife and shake it off like she’s walked up a steep driveway.
Sam Neill is fantastic as “Uncle Hect” a rough around the edges bushman that’s been rescued – in a manner of speaking – by Bella. He’s as much in a spin about Bella as Ricky is, and they’re forced to help each other survive, stay on the run and grieve. He adds a gravitas and pedigree to proceedings.
The child services officer Paula Hall (Rachel House) and her dimwitted policeman offsider Andy (Oscar Kightley) have such an electric chemistry; the best compliment I can give is that it gave me the same ‘happy’ that Brent (Ricky Gervais) and Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) do in The Office. There won’t be a better exchange than her saying to Ricky that she’s the Terminator and he’s Sarah Connor, “before she could do chin-ups.”
Walking out of Wilderpeople, my friend said, “you’re just smitten with that, aren’t you.” It’s a rousing story of the pursuit for belonging, told with the formal dexterity of a burgeoning master filmmaker. Wilderpeople is the best film of 2016, so far; or as Ricky and Uncle Hect would say – “shit just got real.”
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Written by: Taika Waititi (based on the book by Barry Crump)
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rhys Darby, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley
Sam Neill … Hector Faulkner
Julian Dennison … Ricky Baker
Rhys Darby … Psycho Sam
Rima Te Wiata … Bella M. Faulkner
Rachel House … Paula Hall
Oscar Kightley … Andy