Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the Discomfort of Being Affable

hunt-for-the-wilderpeople-posterHeart-warming, sweet, enjoyable, pleasant, funny, likeable and thoughtful, you’ll hear all these things about Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and it’s all true; like a thesaurus of goodwill waiting to be unleashed. It’s hard to walk away from the latest from writer and director, Taika Waititi (adapting the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump) and not feel the warmth his film emits, but at times it’s like being killed with kindness, a good problem to have but a hard one to define beyond pleasantries while suffering from a little bloat.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is an orphan who has been through the foster care system without finding a home. Baker’s behavior has landed him a last chance with new foster parents, Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) at a farm in the countryside of New Zealand. Ricky befriends Bella while Hec keeps his distance. When tragedy strikes, Ricky flees into the wilderness in fear of going back into state care and Hec tries to bring him home. Once child services (Rachel House) discover the duo is missing, a national manhunt kicks into action.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople has spikes of wit as the odd couple, Ricky and Hec, navigate the wild and are forced into moments of candor by Mother Nature, shot wonderfully by cinematographer, Lachlan Milne, who emphasises the organic bush over the mystical Lord of the Rings vistas that hog any camera rolling in New Zealand. Waititi lets the film linger, the irony being that Hunt for the Wilderpeople gets lost in the bush itself with lingering detours that are at odds with his snappy montages and humour. The pacing slows like an 800-meter runner waning on the second lap after a cracking first.

Still, there are sublime moments between Ricky and Hec as they come to terms with not wanting to become dead-ends in the system (Ricky) or life (Hec). There’s a scene where Ricky explains how the sudden death of his friend, Amber (suicide and abuse is implied with great care) affected him. Amber becomes a callback when Ricky explains how orphans become expendable within the state system working hard to forget about them. For a majority of Hunt of the Wilderpeople, Dennison’s Baker comes across as a street smart Christmas ornament lost in the bush, armed only with one-liners, but these moments prove there’s a real character underneath the swagger.

Neill’s Hec acts like the last of his kind, unable to have children and without a companion; he’s committed to being a loner in the wild waiting to go extinct. The bond Hec forms with Ricky is one conjured from a mutual understanding that a family doesn’t have to be bound by blood. Hec must also navigate Ricky’s expectations of what it means to be a man. Ricky is always referencing the gangster lifestyle, mostly played for laughs, but there’s something alarming to Hec about a kid who finds the ideals of masculinity in tales of drug dealers and shootouts while deifying the rapper 2-Pac (also the name of Ricky’s dog). Ricky describes his outlook as the ‘the skuxx life’ while Hec explains that it’s all about ‘the knack’; these two things are the essentially the same and it’s where they arrive at an appreciation of each other, mostly unsaid—they are men—that leads to a moving outcome.

Outside of Ricky and Hec, the gung-ho child services led by House with a self-anointed personal motto of ‘no child left behind’, terrifically lampoons the approach of government authority types to enforce and overcompensate for a system that continually fails kids. House explains Ricky as a ‘real bad egg’ while detailing his misdemeanors on national television as ‘spitting, breaking stuff, defacing stuff, kicking stuff and loitering’. The overreaction is exemplified when House commandeers an army vehicle to chase Baker and Hec and the film reaches the desired comedic altitude.

It’s intriguing that Waititi’s new employer is Disney—guardians of the safe and inoffensive—with his name on the screenplay for the animated Moana and a seat in the director’s chair for Thor: Ragnarok. The optimist hopes Waititi will shake things up for the house that Walt built and shatter the same-same aesthetic Marvel churn out, he’s the creative type they need more than ever, but Hunt for the Wilderpeople suggests a cooling off for the guy responsible for Eagle vs. Shark, Boy and What We Do In The Shadows. Pleasing and agreeable, yes, but there is discomfort to being affable.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie.