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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

July 1, 2016
Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Ricky (Julian Dennison) lives between foster homes. Does his list of high crimes which include — according to his caseworker, Paula (Rachel House) — loitering and “throwing stuff” make him unwelcome, or does he act out because he doesn’t feel like he fits in? In Boy, New Zealand director Taika Waititi showed his soft spot for kids who, like Ricky, have trouble finding their place in a world without their parents. With Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he hones that skill to perfection.

Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has the same soft spot as she takes Ricky in the way she takes in stray dogs to care for them. It’s the way she probably wishes she’d been taken in when she was young and on her own. He makes moves to run off, but she knows better; rather than fight him she reminds him what time to be back for breakfast, and he’s always there. You have to figure that’s how she dealt with Hec (Sam Neill) at first, and even if he’s no less gruff for the years they’ve shared, he knows it’s nice to have a place to go where you can let down your guard. It’s corny at times, but she’s sweet and kind and generous and warm in a way that Ricky really needs at this point in his life.

And so, of course, she dies.

This means back to child services for Ricky, and most likely into a group home. Hec can’t take over as a foster parent even if he wanted to; after losing Bella he’s inclined to “go bush” for a while and figure some things out in the mountain wilderness. Ricky runs away himself, though he’s far less prepared to survive on his own. But an accident forces Hec to depend on Ricky’s help for a bit, and teach him some of the ways of the forest.

This is just long enough for the two of them to turn up missing. Paula immediately decides that Hec has kidnapped Ricky. She calls out a nationwide manhunt, inspired as much by American movies as any reasonable procedure.

There’s a certain irony to Paula’s gung-ho attitude, in that much of what makes Ricky such a “bad egg” in her eyes is his influence by American pop culture. But kids are dumb and like a lot of dumb things on their way to figuring out who they are. Yeah, the way Ricky dresses and talks sometimes look like silly affectations, but so what? Calling in special forces and dangling a reward in front of the kiwi equivalent of hicks is just as silly and affected, but it stands a good chance of getting someone hurt or killed. But hey, don’t look to adults to make sense, or even to be consistent.

All of this is held in a fine balance by Waititi’s now familiar skill. Around here, he’s probably best known for What We Do in the Shadows, or for the upcoming Thor movie, but in his native New Zealand Waititi has proven time and again his ability to deliver these stories that are at the same time fantastic and utterly human. He can turn on a dime from a very dark place, and cut it with exactly the silliness that scene needs.

Bella’s cheer could easily become cloying; Ricky’s “skux life” fusion of Kiwi and Cali could turn insufferable; even Hec’s curmudgeon act could get old. Waititi manages to show us the people behind the characters, and to let us love them even as we roll our eyes a bit. That’s why we can believe in Ricky and Hec’s friendship: we can feel it too.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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