Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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Rating: B+/ There was a lot of excitement in our household for the upcoming release of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. We loved Taika Waititi’s previous effort, What We Do in the Shadows, which has become one of our top movies to rewatch and quote. Eagle Vs. Shark didn’t exactly do it for me, but it’s abundantly obvious that Waititi has loads of talent and a knack for dry, sometimes borderline dark humor and eccentric characters. So it should come as no surprise that Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, is no exception.

It’s both delightful and surprisingly dark at times, quirky and meaningful. I wanted to read Wild Pork and Watercress before I saw this movie, but it turns out Crump’s book is a rarity and going for a small fortune on Amazon.com at the moment. So I dived right into this movie without knowing a lot about the plot beforehand. Twelve-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a habitual troublemaker and oft-rejected foster kid who is moved in with a new family on a small property in the middle of fucking nowhere.

Unsurprisingly, the Gangsta rap loving, rebellious adolescent is none too happy to be placed in ‘Aunt’ Bella (Rema Te Wiata) and ‘Uncle’ Hec (Sam Neill)’s care, and the duo don’t seem too to be doing much to endear themselves to him. Ricky clearly already has attachment issues due to his checkered past, but he gradually develops a fondness for Bella, while the taciturn and deeply unpleasant Hec keeps his distance and refuses to engage with his foster son beyond the preliminary nod and grunt.

When tragedy strikes, Ricky hamfistedly tries to fake his own death to avoid being sent back into the foster care system and he and Hec unexpectedly end up being fugitives of the law. Accompanied by Hec’s dog, Zag, and Ricky’s dog, Tupac, the mismatched duo struggle to survive in the New Zealand bush on their own, using what they hunt and kill for food and gathering vegetables and berries.

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Doggedly tracked by the bewilderingly dim local constable (Oscar Kightley) and Ricky’s dreadful social worker (Rachel House,) Ricky and Hector have no choice but to live with each other for an undetermined number of months, as Hector is mistakenly considered to be a dangerous criminal and a possible sex offender due to a series of momentous misunderstandings and Ricky is determined not to go back to being a ward of the state. As you can imagine, bonding and pathos gradually takes the place of Hector and Ricky’s initial dislike of each other and a lifelong friendship is eventually formed.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople turns out to be a winner due to charming performances, a smart script, and the skillful blending of humor and drama. The characters are vulnerable and believably flawed and you find yourself growing to like them and care about them over the course of the film. I did think the movie got a little too silly around the climactic car chase scene, which detracted from the fairly down-to-earth feeling of the overall story, but it ends up redeeming itself with a tender, low-key ending.

Waititi (who has a cameo as a flaky minister with an aptitude for terrible metaphors) is one of the most underrated filmmakers working today and all of his movies worth seeing at least once. I didn’t love this movie as much as What We Do in the Shadows, which takes it’s place among my top five movies of all time, but it’s utterly enjoyable and mixes the humor, eccentricity, and inevitable sadness of life to lovely effect. You’ll come out of the film feeling better for having known the characters, and tremendously aware of the directors talent for both humor and dynamic storytelling.

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