tribeca 2016: hunt for the wilderpeople.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is as tender as it is strange. Though more predictable in plot than Taika Waititi’s previous feature, 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows, it manages to buck any preconceived notions the audience might have through sheer humor and wit.
The story centers on Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, astonishingly funny and sympathetic) and his new foster family, comprised of Hector and Bella Faulkner (Sam Neill and Rima Te Wiata). To no one’s surprise, it’s a difficult transition — after taking a look around his new home, Ricky wordlessly gets back into the car that brought him there — but Bella wins him over in a series of heartfelt gestures that include tucking a hot water bottle under his blanket, and taking him hunting (a sequence that hilariously includes her stabbing a wild boar to death with the same effusive cheer with which she does everything else).
The broad strokes of the story aren’t anything new, as it is essentially a buddy comedy as Hec and Ricky trek through the New Zealand wilderness, but Waititi’s script and the across-the-board terrific performances make the movie the furthest thing from stale. For instance, there’s Paula (Rachel House, terrifyingly funny), the social worker on Rickey’s case, who compares herself to the Terminator and Ricky to Sarah Connor (“in the first movie, too, before she could do chin-ups”) and even commandeers a tank to pursue Ricky and Hec by the end of the movie. Then there’s Rima Te Wiata (also seen in the great Housebound), who is so lovely as Bella that, even though she isn’t in the movie for very long, her presence (or rather, absence) is still strongly felt through the rest of the film.
That said, the film is largely carried by Julian Dennison and Sam Neill, whose characters' relationship is believably difficult and, in the end, sweet. There isn’t a single beat in their journey that comes across as forced or saccharine. Indeed, the movie doesn’t shy away from touching upon starker themes, best evidenced by a story Ricky tells Hec about a friend who died in a foster home, as well as the implicit status of both Ricky and Hec as outsiders to typical society. As such, the emotional climax of the story is earned rather than shoehorned in as a requisite part of the narrative arc. It’s the rare film that can make an old story feel fresh, and well worth seeking out when it comes into wide release.