Life in remote parts of New Zealand must forge hardy souls, judging from the characters in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the gifted director Taika Waititi’s last film before heading off to Hollywood.
It’s the kind of place where a troubled teen is taken into his latest foster home and among the objects in his new room is “a nice sharp knife to kill the monsters in the night,” says his foster mom, who herself can kill wild boars with one, and his foster dad, who never bothered to learn how to read.
But like anywhere in today’s world (sadly), you can become a social media star even in the remotest part of it.
We’ve seen the formula for Hunt for the Wilderpeople before — crotchety old man clashes/bonds with troubled teen — but when the old man is played by Sam Neill, who has his best part in years, and is presented with the assured quirkiness of Waititi, who scored a hit with the vampire horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows and is now directing the third Thor movie, it’s a winning formula.
Ricky (Julian Dennison) is some piece of work — a roly-poly juvenile delinquent who is used to a more urban environment, but is given a choice by his counselor (Rachel House) of jail or placement at a remote, rural house, presumably a place he can do little damage. His foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata, wonderful), takes to him right away, although her gruff husband, Hec (Neill), won’t speak to him unless necessary.
Just as Ricky is starting to enjoy a foster home for the first time, Bella collapses and dies of a heart attack. Since the terms of the foster care require a mother figure, the state must reclaim him. The grief-stricken Hec, soon to be rid of the boy, decides to disappear into the wilderness. Ricky, fearing jail, relentlessly follows him.
Meanwhile, the outside world believes Hec to be a possible molester who has kidnapped Ricky, and an extensive manhunt is mounted. The rural inhabitants who follow the media reports of the case see them as rebellious heroes escaping from overextended government reach.
“I’m reminded of First Blood,” a TV reporter intones. “John Rambo, a man alone. Of course, they’re two men alone.”
Filled with gorgeous vistas of mountainous New Zealand —– it almost feels like an epic at times — and oddball characters, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has much to recommend it, but none of it would work unless Hec and Ricky are believable and have chemistry. Fortunately, they do.
As Hec, Neill, who is 68, has skin like sun-parched leather, a sandpaper voice and absolutely no parenting skills. As Ricky, Dennison is a misfit with a creative streak (he writes haiku poetry), and as his resourcefulness improves, he becomes gradually more useful during their wilderness journey.
What are they after? Hec is desperately trying to avoid becoming a “form-filler,” like the average human. Ricky wants to live in Rickyville (“Population: Ricky”). Of course, what they’re really after is to retain a sense of individualism in a world that works against that.
One hopes Waititi can retain a sense of his own quirky individualism during his Hollywood adventures.
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Hunt for the Wilderpeople
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison
Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements including violent content, and strong language)
Running time: 101 min.