Hunt For the Wilderpeople
Director: Taika Waititi / Script: TW from novel by Barry Crump / Editing: Tom Eagles / DP: Lachlan Milne
Cast: Sam Neill / Julian Dennison / Rima Te Wiata / Rachel House
Sam Neill’s finest hour is eclipsed by Dennison’s debut.
Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is a big-hearted Earth Mother, living on a remote farm adjacent to the Bush in New Zealand’s South Island; a place ‘a million square kilometres’ in size. Gazing in wonder at the helicopter shots that punctuate this film, you immediately think of two things: LoTR and, err, how much is a plane ticket? Sorry, HOW much?
Okay, back to Bella. She lives in run-down, shabby splendour with equally shlubby (and splendid) husband, Hector (Sam Neill) and the film opens with a police car delivering a young boy for fostering. This is Ricky (Julian Dennison) who, according to the villain of the piece (Paula from Social Services), has brought her office to its knees with his numerous Crimes & Misdemeanours. She’s accompanying him to this final, final last-chance before Ricky’s moved-on to ‘Juvy’ detention. After a quick glance at the house, Ricky promptly climbs back into the car and is then hauled back out by Paula, who shows a near-desperation in offloading this problem kid onto someone else.
Fret not, Dear Reader, for this is no retreading of Oliver Twist, but a laugh-out-loud comedy that sparkles throughout. Take Hec’s opening line to Ricky: “Ever worked on a farm before, or are you just… Ornamental?”
An Unfortunate Event leaves Hec as Ricky’s sole guardian; a situation that Paula (and the State) won’t tolerate, thus igniting the story’s main driver: her efforts at ‘recapturing’ Ricky from a man perceived by the wider world, thanks to miscommunication, as a paedophile (funnier than it sounds in-context).
The truth, is that diffident, kindly Hector and ‘streetwise’-but-innocent-Ricky, have a lot to learn from each other, with much healing to be done. [plot spoiler] Hec, for losing his beloved Bella and Ricky, for lacking a role-model all his life. In their months living wild in the bush, Hec teaches self-sufficiency to Ricky, who gives comradeship and a sense of belonging in-turn. Their self-imposed isolation allows the cares and frustrations each carry, to slowly melt away.
Along the way, we meet a few supporting players, most notably Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), who’s channeling Rick Mayall’s performance as Ben Gunn or Mad Gerald from Blackadder #1; a man who’s cast himself away to avoid the ‘Government listening to my brain’. Sprinkling characters such as this into a ten-chapter film, keeps things brisk and charged with momentum. Just as well, as the script’s first mis-step reveals itself about two-thirds-in: Paula’s efforts to find Ricky, that escalate out of a pathological mania in which she spouts a variation on the old U.S. Marine motto, ‘No Child Left Behind’. It’s a development that leads to an increasingly improbable series of set-pieces out-of-sync with the overall tone, but it’s to Director Waititi’s credit, that our focus remains on Ricky throughout, leaving his pursuer more of an (annoying) Cruella de Ville character.
This piece reminds me of a whole bunch of films ‘they don’t make any more’, such as Swallows and Amazons, Son of Rambow and even The Railway Children. It’s really funny. Heartwarming. Poignant and shot-through with the essence of what being an orphan, pulled-out of the familiar city and dropped into remote countryside, might actually be like. As an example, take the scene where Ricky strings-up his hot-water-bottle over the campfire ‘to warm it up’. His look of disbelief when it melts and promptly dumps its contents over his fire is visual storytelling – Pure Cinema – at its best.
Another satisfying touch, is Ricky’s use of HaiKu’s to express his anger at the world about him. At first, they’re full of spiteful rage, but that’s just a reflection of his environment. After a spell in the bush, he’s developed a mellow, open-minded demeanour, not too dissimilar to Hec’s, which explains the elder man’s initial aloofness to incomers: such suspicion is a natural reaction to living within nature, you might say.
Waititi’s a beloved Director and champion of film-making in his native NZ and adapted this piece from an original novel by the late Barry Crump, a renowned bushman and writer in the same vein as our own Laurie Lee, so its local pedigree is assured. That it transcends its source, is testament to Waititi’s skill at adaptation as much as the committed performances on display here. It’s a film that delights in its Kiwi origins; its good humour is irrepressible and I guarantee this is a film you’ll reach for on every rainy Sunday afternoon from now on, if only to see where future global superstar Julian Dennison got his first big break.
Yes there are problems. The final chase tips its hat a little too far in the direction of Thelma and Louise or Butch Cassidy and Paula-the-social-worker needs a bigger fall than she gets, but niggles here are few and far between.
Watch, smile and reach for the biccies.
How was jail? Did you shank anyone?