At the tender age of 13, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) already wants to be a gangster. The portly orphan believes firmly in the power of pop culture; he wears a puffy red and white jacket with Tupac lyrics stitched on the back, walks with imposing confidence like a gangsta rapper and has "a history of causing trouble." That's a quote from the Child Welfare Officer (Rachel House) who drops him off at the farm of newly anointed foster parents Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). But Ricky's a traumatized kid, a sweetheart posing as a tough guy, and his new guardians see right through the façade.
So begins Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a leisurely and hopeful coming-of-age comedy adapted from Barry Crump's 1986 novel, Wild Pork and Watercress. New Zealand's lush, mountainous countryside (aptly titled "the bush") provides an epic backdrop for a simple story unconcerned with the hustle and bustle of urban life. In fact, the film feels like one extended retreat from it; our modern culture of unflinching media frenzy and social media speculation is toxic.
Upon spending a few days in the quiet of nature, Ricky softens up, realizing that his new home is a place to heal, not hurt. Patience is not only a virtue for Bella and Hec; it's their ornery philosophy. Responsibility must be earned, and Ricky seems up for the task. Then this idyllic new reality tragically falls apart, leading to a series of events that land Hec and Ricky stranded in the wilderness. State bureaucrats misinterpret their untimely disappearance as a kidnapping, resulting in an overblown nationwide manhunt.
Here, Hunt for the Wilderpeople turns into a full-blown satire, albeit a charming one. Militarized police squads, local hunters and clueless peons from social services vigorously track Ricky and Hec, forcing the pair to become militant survivalists in order to escape unjust punishment. The duo gains popularity among the country's youth but are considered pariahs by the government, a human stain that cannot see the light of day. Why? That's anyone's guess. Nightly news recaps remind us of the absurdity.
The film slyly examines such overreactions and judgments that are placed upon Hec (a roughneck ex-con deemed unfit to be a single father), and the escalation into a frenzy of miscommunication and wasted energy. Ricky isn't oblivious to his role in stoking these fires, and he often feels badly that his shenanigans have caused so much confusion.
Waititi's characters feel things deeply. They never shy away from expressing themselves in grand verbal gestures. Sincerity is what makes them resonate as people despite the often overly sentimental material. Neil and Dennison develop a natural chemistry that elevates the emotional impact of their exchanges. Their characters try to find ways of communicating without seeming weak, transcending the masculine cultures from which they gain so much of their identity.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which opens Friday, July 15, is a jovial children's fable that grapples with serious themes such as death and loneliness without being silly or dramatic. It may peak early on during a hilariously confusing eulogy from one wacky minister (played by Waititi himself), but the film is consistently endearing. For proof, see Ricky's final bit of self-reflection to Hec: "I got carried away being an outlaw. I was having too much fun."
For this lonely Māori kid facing isolation and marginalization, a purposeful romp through the woods carries with it so much possibility and joy. It's about finding your place in the world, and possibly someone who cares enough to sneak a hot water bottle under your blanket before bed. Comfort can come easy around the right people, even if you're on the lam in the far, far away.