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Flick You Might Have Missed: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

by Andrew Collins on June 3, 2017

in Featured, Flicks You Might Have Missed, Spring 2017

Life Abundant: The Kiwi Edition
by Andrew Collins

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those delightfully unnecessary films. The world neither needs nor deserves a film like this indie comedy from writer and director Taika Waititi, but we are undoubtedly better off for its having been made.

The film is set in the beautiful, exotic backcountry of New Zealand. Part Middle-earth-like forest, part storybook jungle, “the bush” is the last place one might expect a chubby, hip-hop-loving thirteen-year-old to make into a home. Yet that’s where Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) finds himself as the foster care system tries to find a place that can handle his propensity for “graffiti-ing, littering, smashing stuff, burning stuff, breaking stuff, stealing stuff, throwing rocks, running away…” (and that’s just the stuff they know about). The story begins with child protective services dropping Ricky off to live with Bella and Hec Faulkner (played by Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill, respectively), an older couple who live what we Americans might call a frontier life. They exist on the fringes of civilization, subsisting in large part directly off the land.

It doesn’t take long for the plot to start building in absurdity, as a sudden tragedy forces an illiterate, cantankerous sexagenarian and the aforementioned delinquent youth to band together and flee into the bush from an overzealous child protective services agent. This “hunt for the wilderpeople,” as Hec and Ricky come to call themselves, embodies Ricky’s romanticized imagination of the gangster life (and then some), featuring wild bores, fair maidens on horseback, tireless villains with inept minions, and just for kicks, a bat-crazy doomsday prepper. And just when it seems things won’t get any more bizarre than Psycho Sam offering to help them escape an armed SWAT team via jetpack, the hunt culminates in an off-road chase sequence with the New Zealand equivalent of the national guard.

What more is there to say about such a story? Ricky summarizes it thusly: “I didn’t choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me.”

Even as the film pushes the laws of probability and necessity into the realm of comedy and farce, however, Hunt for the Wilderpeople also artfully builds in heart, showing how the shared pain of loneliness and loss can till the soil for the growth of the most unlikely friendships. The first time Ricky meets Hec and offers to help out on the farm, the old man tells Ricky to leave him alone. The first time Ricky shares a haiku from his past (a form he was taught to use as a way to express his feelings), it offers a comedic yet telling glimpse into his past: “Kingi you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.” Each are deeply wary of new friendships. Each deeply needs a friend.

The weight of both these comedic moments and of the film’s sincere charm rest squarely on the shoulders of Dennison, who in many scenes needs little more than a disdaining glance or gaping mouth to project the full weight of Ricky’s character. It’s hard to imagine the film finding its mark without his performance.

Clever plot line and superb acting aside, however, what ultimately makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople so compelling is its vision of the good life, a vision found not so much in the “skuxx life” as in the journey of two friends summiting the same mountains, fording the same rivers, and hunting the same game together. As Ricky puts it in a haiku: “Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky. / Running with my Uncle Hec / Living forever.”

This taste of life abundant inspires Hec to attempt some verse of his own: “Me and this fat kid / We ran we ate and read books / And it was the best.”

I can’t think of a better summary than that.

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