THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE"
What a wonderfully strange and unique film Hunt for the Wilderpeople is. Here's a good reminder that a story can have unlikely or even implausible elements, yet still feed credible if the characters are authentic and the themes are sincere. Adapting Barry Crump's book Wild Pork and Watercress, writer/director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) explores personal connection, specifically the way that one or two meaningful relationships can transform people into the best possible versions of themselves. That theme is delivered so genuinely that you walk away feeling uplifted.
Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a hip hop-loving kid in New Zealand who has been bounced around from foster home to foster home. He ends up in a last-chance placement at the remote farm of an older couple, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). The former is perhaps a little too exuberant, but she's also very welcoming. The latter is perpetually cranky. Ricky starts to turn himself around in this new environment. Then something happens that sets him back, and he flees into the bush. Hec goes after him. What follows is a months-long adventure that draws the two of them together as they attempt to survive, while also fleeing a mean child welfare worker who wants to take Ricky away again.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not your typical story about people bonding. It turns most of the expected conventions inside out. For instance, it's Ricky's defiance of authority that drives the trek he makes with Hec. Most other movies would have had the older man as the driving force; in this case, the boy's inherent rebelliousness is the catalyst for everything that happens. They continue on in the face of increasingly difficult odds because the kid only knows how to keep pushing when his back is against the wall. The word “quit” isn't in his vocabulary. Because of this, Hec doesn't help Ricky heal so much as Ricky helps Hec heal, and then finds that he has also healed himself in the process. The mentor/student dynamic is reversed.
That approach is quite powerful, inviting us to think about the story's themes more deeply than we would in a conventional take on this plot. In fact, Hunt for the Wilderpeople generally succeeds by going in the direction that's opposite from what we anticipate. A low-key approach to conveying its ideas also adds meaning. In making Hec cranky and Ricky guarded/defiant, the movie avoids telling you explicitly what to feel. Instead, it allows you to approach the story's inherent emotion on your own terms.
The film is very funny, in a quirky sort of way. Interactions between the two leads are often humorously contentious, with Hec frustrated by Ricky's obstinance, and Ricky frustrated by Hec's lack of it. Many of the situations they endure elicit laughs, such as a bit where they encounter a paranoid hermit in the bush; his bizarre rituals prove surprisingly helpful. Same goes for the ways in which they repeatedly foil a group of rude hunters who want to subdue them for the bounty law enforcement has offered for their capture. The comedy comes not just from wacky situations, but also from the way these two distinct, finely-developed characters respond to them.
Sam Neill is fantastic as Hec, a man whose constant irritability causes him to relate to Ricky in ways that he's initially reluctant to acknowledge. The actor steadfastly refuses to play the “grump with a heart of gold” stereotype, instead digging deeper to show how Hec gradually comes to find something in common with the kid, even if that thing isn't entirely a warm-and-fuzzy quality. Many of his slow-burns are hilarious. The true star, however, is Julian Dennison, who plays Ricky with so much kooky, lovable charisma that we totally understand why someone would follow him through the bush. (Imagine Rebel Wilson as a teen boy and you start to get the picture.) Dennison, too, avoids playing easy or cheap emotions. He subtly suggests Ricky's wounded quality comes from being consistently unwanted, as well as the idea that his oppositional nature hides a scared child desperate to feel normal.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople implies that all kids are good and just need love and support, and also that a little rebelliousness isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it teaches them to stand up for themselves and to speak out when things are wrong. By the third act, some of the story's occurrences become a bit outlandish, particularly an elaborate chase scene in which the duo are pursued by the child welfare worker and an army of cops. That doesn't matter too much because the movie earns the feelings it generates. Hunt for the Wilderpeople manages to be touching without turning sappy, and funny without relying on cheap humor.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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