Taika Waititi crafted one of the most beguiling films of 2016 with Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Waititi has been creating small charming films based in New Zealand for the past several years, including Boy, Eagle vs. Shark, and my favorite of his, What We Do in the Shadows. He has a knack for displaying memorable characters who find themselves in unusual circumstances and are often outcasts. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is no different.
It is the story of a foster child named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) who finds himself in the care of Bella (Rima Te Wiata, who was previously hilarious in the horror comedy Housebound), and Hector (the great Sam Neill) on their farm. When a tragic incident occurs, Ricky and Hector find themselves on the run, being chased by a ruthless, self-proclaimed “Terminator”-like child service employee, Paula (Rachel House), and the police. Their adventure through the bush is one full of self-discovery, love, danger, excitement, and fun.
The two main characters, Ricky and Hector, are outsiders, forced to be together as accidental fugitives. Ricky is a thirteen year old hooligan, never knowing his real mother, and moving from foster home to foster home, trying to avoid juvie. Hector is a 65 year old farmer, never had a child of his own, and is a grumpy older man, a loner, who loves the wild and his wife and his dog, Zag. Together they make a great team, Ricky allowing Hector to enjoy life, and Hector providing a role model (although a somewhat disinterested one) to Ricky. Their bond is the glue of the film, holding together the story, as they meet strangers trying to arrest them, child services, and crazy bushmen. Their travels through the bush allow for both of them to realize what’s important in life. For Ricky, it’s responsibility and the understanding that life is more than just trying to be a gangster, and for Hector, that there are other people who need him, rely on him and care for him.
Taika Watiti excels at directing this odd couple duo. He pulls fully realized performances from Julian Dennison as Ricky and Sam Neill as Hector. Sam Neill is fantastic in this role. He could have played this character as a typical grumpy older dude who doesn’t give a damn. And the character is that, to an extent. But Neill is more gifted than playing him by the books. He reveals a softness to him, a longing for something more, generating a wholly empathetic portrayal of a man who has lost much and experienced little. It is a moving performance in a truly unique film.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, very charming film that elated me to no end. Waititi continues to prove himself a talented director, and one who also has a skill for action as shown in a showdown with a boar and an unexpected bonkers climactic chase. This film is truly delightful and heart warming, and is one of the more enjoyable films of 2016.